France: A chronicle of police violence

Riots have gripped France for days after the fatal police shooting of a teenager. It's just the latest in a series of allegedly racist incidents say the protesters

There are a number of allegedly racist killings that stand out in the collective French memory (Photo: DW)
There are a number of allegedly racist killings that stand out in the collective French memory (Photo: DW)


The police killing of a 17-year-old of Algerian descent named Nahel in the Parisian suburb of Nanterre sparked unrest that has spread has far as Belgium on Tuesday.

While not every deadly police action provokes protest, there are a number of allegedly racist killings that stand out in the collective French memory.

In 2022 alone, there were 138 documented incidences of French police firing shots at moving cars, while 13 people died in shootings that took place during traffic stops.

October 27, 2005: Zyed Benna and Bouna Traore die in Clichy-sous-Bois

Ten youths are on their way home from a soccer match, among them 15-year-old Bouna Traore and 17-year-old Zyed Benna. Around the same time, police receive an emergency call: A construction shack has been broken into. During the search for the perpetrators, police check the group of youths. Traore, Benna and their friend Muhittin Altun are without identification documents and flee.

Police reinforcements are called and a chase ensues. The three teenagers run into a fenced area, hiding in a power substation, where Traore and Benna die of electrocution. Their friend survives with severe burns.

A recording of a police radio message sparks controversy: "If they go onto the EDF site, I don't give much of a damn about their lives," one of the pursuing officers says when he sees the youths climbing over a fence toward the site, which belongs to the electricity operator EDF. According to the officer's own account, however, he had assumed that they were not there after all.

The officer and a colleague in the police station who followed the chase by radio are both tried on charges of failing to render assistance. Ten years later, they are acquitted by a criminal court in Rennes in the final instance. The court finds that there was no immediate danger to the teens and that the police officers acted proportionately.

June 17, 2007: Lamine Dieng dies in Belleville

After an argument between Lamine Dieng and his girlfriend, police pick up the 25-year-old and load him into a police van. According to the the human rights organization Amnesty International's reconstruction of the incident, officers force him down with a clamp grip, pressing his body and face to the ground for half an hour, his feet bound together. Dieng loses consciousness and suffocates.

Thirteen years later, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg orders France to pay Dieng's family €145,000 ($158,000) to end proceedings and avoid a new conviction. After the crime, Dieng's sisters founded the first Truth and Justice Committee to clarify what really happened during the incident. Many more such incidents would follow.

June 9, 2009: Ali Ziri dies in Argenteuil

The 69-year-old Algerian is visiting France to buy wedding gifts for his son. He has a few alcoholic beverages with a friend after the shopping trip. When the pair later undergo a police traffic stop, passenger Ali Ziri reportedly resists. Three police officers handcuff the intoxicated pensioner, put him in a police vehicle and restrain him on the way to the station, with his head between his knees.

Ziri vomits several times, falls into a coma and later dies at the hospital. Cause of death: suffocation. Again, the European Court of Human Rights condemns France for "negligence." Ziri's daughter receives €30,000 in moral damages and €7,500 for costs and expenses.

July 19, 2016: Adama Traore dies in Beaumont-sur-Oise

The 24-year-old, whose parents are from Mali, initially escapes the police during a chase, but is ultimately arrested. Three police officers kneel on his back, and according to the arrest report, Adama Traore says he can't breathe. Police call an ambulance, but Traore is dead by the time it arrives.

In this case, there are no witnesses or video recordings. The exact cause of death is disputed, with a court citing previous illness. The autopsy commissioned by Traore's family concludes that he suffocated due to external force.

January 5, 2020: Cedric Chouviat dies in Paris

The 42-year-old food delivery driver is on his scooter near the Eiffel Tower when police stop him for allegedly talking on the phone while driving. The routine check spirals out of control, with the four officers and Cedric Chouviat get into a shouting match that ends in him being forced face down to the ground while still wearing his helmet.

The father of five shouts "I'm suffocating!" seven times, video and audio recordings show. But the officers do not react, and Chouviat loses consciousness and dies 48 hours later in the hospital. Autopsy result: death due to a laryngeal hernia.

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