The officials were on strike in the Nanterre courthouse, so the accused burglars, homeless thieves and domestic abusers had to wait. It was 5pm when Yanis Linize was brought into the courtroom, a few blocks from the roundabout where young Nahel Merzouk was shot by a police officer just a week ago, sparking protests across the country.
A bicycle courier from a southern suburb of Paris, Mr. Linize was swept up in the anger and emotion that erupted over the death, and the widespread perception that racial discrimination played a role in it.
He faced charges of issuing death threats to police and of promoting damage to public property.
“I was angry because of everything that was happening,” Mr. Linize, 20, told the panel of three black-clad judges before him. “Someone died. That is serious.”
After five nights of fury over the killing of Mr. Merzouk, the country calmed down and began to assess the damage: more than 5,000 vehicles burned, 1,000 buildings damaged or looted, 250 police stations or gendarmerie attacked, more than 700 officers injured.
Some 3,400 people were arrested as a massive police presence began to restore order.
The justice system works almost around the clock to prosecute them. Many are channeled through rush trials, known as instant comparisonswhere prosecutors and court-appointed lawyers traditionally sweep through simple crimes such as traffic violations, theft or assault, often when the accused is caught in the act.
After flooding the streets with 45,000 officers night after night, the French state is looking to send a second harsh message. Justice Minister Éric Dupond-Moretti advised prosecutors to systematically seek prison sentences for people accused of physical assault or serious vandalism.
“Very clearly, I want a firm hand,” Mr. Dupond-Moretti told France Inter radio on monday
The court in Nanterre, the Paris suburb where Mr. Merzouk lived and died, held special sessions over the weekend. All kinds of people showed up: paramedics, restaurants, factory workers, students and the unemployed.
The majority of those arrested, according to French authorities, had no previous criminal record. And most are minors: the average age is 17, with some as young as 12. They go to a specialized court where the process is slower and prison is seen as a last resort.
With instant comparisons, justice is routinely as harsh as it is swift: lawyers often have only 30 minutes to prepare, and cases often end in jail time. In theory, the accused have an option to postpone the hearing to better prepare with lawyers of the court, but few take it, mostly because they would wait in prison.
Sandwiched between robberies and domestic violence, the trials move quickly. Mr. Linize’s lasted less than two hours.
He appeared in a glass case, wearing a blue waistcoat zipped up to his chin, his long brown hair falling neatly around his face, and his hands politely folded behind his back.
The police arrested him for chanting “Justice for Nahel, we will kill you all.” He told the court he shouted “Justice for Nahel, no more deaths.” Almost three years ago he was convicted of assaulting a police officer, and since then has been working to pay a fine of 10,000 euros ($11,000) — a heavy lift, since he earns only 1,500 euros a month. He lives with his parents.
After his arrest, police accessed his phone and found videos he had made. The judge read out messages from the private Snapchat stories that Mr Linize had shared with 20 friends.
In one, he offers cash to people who can provide him with mortar tubes to launch fireworks – which were the main weapons used by protesters to fight police. In a video he posted at 3:25 a.m., he holds a gas can and says, “I’m going to burn everything in the housing project.”
But it’s all posturing, he maintained, saying he didn’t burn, smash or steal anything. “All that, it’s just words,” he told the judges. “I’m just saying what’s going through my mind.”
President Emmanuel Macron has blamed social media — Especially Snapchat and TikTok — to accelerate the violent response to the shooting of the teenager, enabling rioters to quickly coordinate and encouraging imitative behavior. Experts say its impact is one notable difference from 2005, when France was rocked by three weeks of riots after the deaths of two teenagers who fled police custody. Back then, smartphones and social media barely existed.
The chief judge read out several of the messages Mr Linize had shared, declaring he planned to “fight the police tonight” and damage everything.
“You wanted to intimidate the state,” the judge said. “You said nothing came of the messages you sent, but that’s out of your control.”
Mr. Linize’s criminal lawyer, Camilla Quendolo, worked on cases over the weekend. One common denominator she saw was the shock at the teenager’s death among many protesters, some of whom even knew the victim.
“The message from the prosecutor’s office was very clear, very precise and systematic. But on the bench, it was really up to the judge,” said Ms. Quendolo, who spends 30 percent of her time working as a public defender.
“It’s a good thing and a bad thing,” she added. “They are not robots, which is good, but at the same time it creates inequality between people.”
In court, she reminded the judges that her client had no dangerous objects on him at the time of arrest – “no weapon, no fireworks, nothing.” His words were simply political, she said.
Many in the small courtroom, full of friends and families of the arrested, applauded.
“These sentences are too heavy for young people,” said Issa Sonke, 23, a security worker who was at the trial to support a friend. “They didn’t hurt anyone,” he said, standing next to the coffee machine along the court.
Mr. Sonke, who is from a neighboring suburb full of immigrants, said that “every one of us grew up witnessing police violence,” adding: “We all saw the police beating our friends.”
The killing of Mr Merzouk tapped into the long-standing resentment of racism among many French minorities, and revived a long, painful debate about racial profiling by the police – a harmful phenomenon that has been proven in many studies, but that is fiercely denied by the police. trade unions
In 2016, French Supreme Court of Appeals ruled that some identity checks carried out by the police were indeed discriminatory, motivated only by the “real or supposed origin” of the young people who were stopped. It found that this was “serious misconduct” on the part of the state. While the government made some changes, including introducing body cameras for some officers, it did not question the general practice of identity checks.
A group of organizations including Amnesty International filed a class action lawsuit against the government in 2021, demanding a clearer legal basis for ID stops, among other changes. The case is expected to start soon.
On Monday, the president’s office reiterated its view that discrimination or racism did not play a role in the traffic stop that ended in Mr. Merzouk’s death. Linda Kebbab, a spokeswoman for the nation’s largest police union, which represents the two officers involved, supported that view.
“If we say something and everything is a racist crime, we won’t be able to fight real cognitive bias that pollutes public service,” Ms Kebbab said.
A few blocks from the courthouse, a group of teenagers who knew Mr. Merzouk from the neighborhood sat on couches in the store of a small community organization, the burned corpses of three cars in view. They pointed out the injustice of being charged with threatening police when they regularly felt threatened with police IDs.
“There are prisons and justice — prisons are for you, but justice is not,” said Yasmina Kammour, 25, a youth worker in the neighborhood.
Two warring online fundraising campaigns underscore the point, she said. The one established for the family of the police officer who shot Nahel exceeded 1.4 million euros in just five days. The one for Mr. Merzouk’s mother reached €378,000.
“It proves so many things,” Ms Kammour said. “They have the money, they have the power.”
In the end, Mr. Linize was found guilty and received an eight-month suspended sentence. He was ordered to wear an electronic bracelet for four months, take a citizenship class for €300 and remain employed.
The next person arrested during the protests arrived in the glass defendant’s box just after 10 p.m
Aurelien Breeden contributed reporting from Paris.