French justice is working overtime and the mood is stern after thousands of teen arrests

A woman reacts on June 30 by damaged sports store after a third night of unrest in Paris. (AP Photo/Michel Euler, File)

CRETEIL, France — At 19, he was the oldest of the group of teens accused of lobbing Molotov cocktails at the police station of their suburban hometown.

“Why?” the judge asked Riad, who was taken into custody after he was identified in video surveillance images of the group from June 29, the second night of nationwide unrest following the police shooting of another suburban teenager outside Paris.


“For justice for Nahel,” Riad said. Slumped and slightly disheveled after five nights in jail, he said he didn’t know about the peaceful march organized by Nahel Merzouk’s family. He explained the cellphone photo of him holding a Molotov cocktail was “for social media. To give an image.”

In all, more than 3,600 people have been detained in the unrest across France since the death of Nahel on June 27, with an average age of 17, according to the Interior Ministry. The violence, which left more than 800 law enforcement officers injured, has largely subsided in recent days.

French courts are working overtime to process the arrests, including opening their doors through the weekend, with fast-track hearings around an hour long and same-day sentencing.

The prosecutor noted that Riad had learned where to acquire incendiary devices on Snapchat, the social network which the French government has singled out along with TikTok as fueling the unrest. Riad’s lawyer noted his record was clean, and he was blamed for no significant damage or any injuries.

By the end of Tuesday, Riad’s sentence was fixed: three years, with a minimum of 18 months behind bars, barred from his hometown of Alfortville for the duration of the term.

He collapsed on the stand: “I’m not ready to go to prison. I’m really not ready.” He threw a furtive kiss at his mother as he was led away.

Outside the packed courtroom, a pair of girls asked someone exiting what sentence he’d received. “Three years? That’s insane!” one exclaimed.

But the mood in France is stern after unrest that officials estimate caused 1 billion euros (more than $1 billion) in damage. The killing of 17-year-old Nahel came during a June 27 traffic stop.

The shooting, which was captured on video, immediately stirred up long-simmering tensions between police and young people — nearly all minorities, and overwhelmingly French-born — in housing projects and disadvantaged suburbs.

Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti issued an order on Friday that demanded a “strong, firm and systematic” judicial response. Hearings began the next day, as the unrest continued into the night.

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