France is in a period of chaos as protests, rioting and looting have endured for a week following the police killing of a teenager. The young man of North African descent was shot during a traffic stop, and his death has highlighted the mistreatment and discrimination that immigrant families face in the country.

Seventeen-year-old Nahel Merzouk was killed by French police officers last Tuesday during a traffic stop in the Paris suburb of Nanterre. Police pulled over Merzouk as he was driving a Mercedes in a bus lane. As disturbing video of the incident shows, two police officers held Merzouk at gunpoint during the stop before Merzouk began to accelerate, seemingly to escape. At this point, the video shows one of the officers yelling “shoot him,” followed by the other officer firing. Merzouk was fatally shot in the chest and died on the scene.


Police initially claimed that they opened fire to prevent Merzouk from running someone over with the car, but the video shows that the officers were not in front of the vehicle when Merzouk accelerated and there does not appear to be anyone else in front of the car. Another young man who claims to have been a passenger in the car during the shooting said that the teens borrowed the Mercedes and were not drinking or using drugs. He said that during the traffic stop, the two officers hit Merzouk with the butts of their guns and threatened to shoot him.

The police officer who fired the fatal shot has since been detained for homicide, and Nanterre prosecutor Pascal Prache said it’s believed that his use of force was unlawful. The officer has apologized to Merzouk’s family through his lawyer. A GoFundMe campaign set up for the officer by far-right politicians has raised over $1 million in support for him, which has further angered French citizens and politicians.

Protests against Merzouk’s death started Tuesday night and have continued for a week. The unrest in France has been severe. The protests, which began in  Nanterre, have spread across Paris and other cities such as Marseilles and Lyon. Thousands of people have been arrested by French police, and thousands of vehicles and hundreds of buildings have been burned and/or destroyed. Several attacks have been committed against public officials. Most notably, the home of the mayor of a Paris suburb was rammed by a burning car in an “assassination attempt” that injured the mayor’s wife and one of their children.

France has deployed 45,000 police officers to fight the unrest, and many people have called for President Emmanuel Macron to declare a state of emergency in the country. Right-wing politicians and their supporters are using the riots to further condemn immigrants in the country, while advocates for reform point toward the root causes of poverty and discrimination against Black and brown people in the country.

The unrest reflects decades of discrimination and bias against immigrants in France, particularly Muslims and people of North African descent. French colonization of nearby Algeria ended in 1962 after that country fought a long and bloody war against French forces occupying the country. France has maintained connections with Algeria and other African countries, creating large immigrant communities in France that often face racism, Islamophobia and xenophobia from the predominantly white and secular majority population. The protests and violence in France have spread to Switzerland and Belgium as well, though on a smaller level than in France.

Merzouk, whose family has roots in Algeria and Morocco, has been described as a member of a local rugby team who was training to be an electrician. Merzouk’s family held a funeral for the teenager at a local mosque in Nanterre. His grandmother Nadia has called for peace and an end to the violence and property destruction in the country and described her grandson as a “good, kind boy.” French soccer star Kylian Mbappe expressed his condolences to Merzouk’s family, mourning “this little angel who left far too soon” in a French-language post on Twitter.

Given the long history of racism and discrimination in France, the anger being displayed throughout the country is unlikely to go away any time soon. And Merzouk is likely to remain a tragic symbol of the challenges that immigrant families, and particularly young men of color, face in the country.