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In the Paris suburb where riots erupted, protests have died down but anger remains


Protests that swept across France over the police killing of a young man of North African descent are over, but root causes still simmer. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley visited the Paris suburb where the unrest began and reports there are efforts to try to help residents find some relief, if only for the summer.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Speaking French).

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Not far from where cars were torched and buildings set on fire after 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk was killed by a policeman at a traffic stop, children in Nanterre now glide down water slides and jump on trampolines. A giant astroturf area known as la plage, or the beach, has been set up for the summer by the city. Mothers Yousra (ph) and Sara Gaby watch their children from chaise lounge chairs under the shade of beach umbrellas.

SARA GABY: (Speaking French).

YOUSRA GABY: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "The kids are having fun," they say. "We're lucky Nanterre does this. It's great, especially if you can't get away for vacation." The cousins say the riots took place literally under their windows.

Y GABY: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "We couldn't sleep, and the tear gas drifted through our open windows." Yousra Gaby says there are definitely some racist police, but she also blames the young rioters.

Y GABY: (Through interpreter) I understand their anger but not the way they expressed it. They destroyed their own community, like the stores where their parents shop, their neighbors cars.

BEARDSLEY: The two Muslim women who are veiled and wear long robes can't go to the pool next door because body-covering swimwear is not permitted in French public swimming pools.


BEARDSLEY: Two other Nanterre mothers who aren't veiled also say both sides bear responsibility. There are decent cops, but there's also racial profiling, says Carole Boulegroun, whose husband is of Algerian descent.

CAROLE BOULEGROUN: (Through interpreter) My son has been stopped by the police because of his looks, and they've made racist comments like, we don't believe a little Arab like you isn't carrying pot.

BEARDSLEY: Myriam Durand, who sports a platinum-blonde pageboy, smokes as she watches her grandchildren play. She says another problem is that France is becoming too much like America.

MYRIAM DURAND: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "Who gives the police the right to shoot someone at point-blank range?" - she asks angrily. "Where do they think they are? This is France, not the U.S." People here say the mayor of Nanterre is a good man, and the city does a lot for its residents. Though some wonder if citizens could be held more accountable in return. Like the majority of French people, 63-year-old Marie-Paul Mansour is white and Catholic. She wears a crucifix around her neck. Mansour says she's lived in Nanterre for 35 years and raised a family in public housing. She says it's more complicated than just racism.

MARIE-PAUL MANSOUR: (Through interpreter) It's because of the concentration of people from different backgrounds and cultures living together in what we could call ghettos. And they're not integrated either. France is failing to integrate the second generation.



BEARDSLEY: President Emmanuel Macron spoke this week for the first time since the riots. While he admitted that for decades, France had let problems fester in the same neighborhoods, he said the main lesson of it all is that France must restore authority.


MACRON: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "We need order," said Macron. Several police officers have been arrested for unprovoked violence, including the one who shot Merzouk, but France is polarized over whether out-of-control youths or systemic police racism is to blame.



BEARDSLEY: A kind of block party is underway in the neighborhood where Merzouk lived. We're surrounded by housing projects and a lot of concrete, but the whole neighborhood has come out. There's all kinds of stands for the kids. There's board games. There's drawing. There's graffiti lessons.

MECHE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: The graffiti class is taught by Meche, a professional who only wants to go by his artistic name. Meche is white and has lived in Nanterre his whole life. He says the police are the main cause of the riots.

MECHE: People are angry, and, of course, they make some riots. For me, it's obvious.

BEARDSLEY: Meche's specialty is letters. He says his graffiti has a distinct message since the murder of a 17-year-old resident of Nanterre.

MECHE: I say (speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "The police kill."

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Nanterre. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.