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French police have a long history of violence in certain neighborhoods of Marseille

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

And now we'll look to France, where over the summer, the country again saw a wave of protests following the death of an unarmed teenager, Nahel Merzouk, at the hands of police. Rebecca Rosman brings us this report from the city of Marseille, where policing has long been the object of protest. And a note that this report does contain the sounds of gunfire that lead to Merzouk's death.

REBECCA ROSMAN, BYLINE: The poor neighborhood of Frais-Vallon, located in northern Marseille, is known for all the wrong reasons, reasons including gang violence, drug trafficking and dilapidated public housing that gives off a sort of post-apocalyptic feeling.

AMINE KESSACI: (Speaking French).

ROSMAN: Community leader Amine Kessaci shows me the bleak concrete tower he was born and raised in.

KESSACI: (Speaking French).

ROSMAN: Just next to it, he points out, is a blue staircase that used to be the local police headquarters.

KESSACI: (Speaking French).

ROSMAN: There was a good understanding between young people and the police then, he says.

KESSACI: (Speaking French).

ROSMAN: But today, Kessaci says, that sentiment has died. The police are long gone, he says, so is the kind of policing Kessaci remembers. In the '90s, French law enforcement began experimenting with community policing, which focuses on building relationships between local police and the communities they serve. There were also social services, like a post office and youth center.

KESSACI: (Speaking French).

ROSMAN: That all changed nearly 20 years ago, Kessaci says, when interior minister and later President Nicolas Sarkozy, he says, decided to declare a war against our neighborhoods. Sarkozy slashed budgets for initiatives like community policing in favor of a law-and-order approach.

KESSACI: (Speaking French).

ROSMAN: From that moment on, Kessaci says, they turned their backs on us - they being the French government. Kessaci is only 19 years old, but he speaks with the conviction and experience of someone much older. He says the only time he sees police enter the neighborhood these days is for the occasional drug bust. SWAT teams swoop in and out, only adding to the tension and suspicion between French police forces and working-class communities they serve.

JOSEPH DOWNING: We've lost that really more direct connection between the police and the people.

ROSMAN: Joseph Downing is an academic who has been researching the relationship between politics, integration and security in Marseille for over a decade.

DOWNING: The police that are left have become much more militarized and much more muscular and have been given powers to use, for example, lethal force more often, example, in traffic stops.

ROSMAN: Traffic stops like the case of Nahel Merzouk. The unarmed 17-year-old from the working-class Paris suburb of Nanterre was fatally shot by a police officer in June.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in French).

ROSMAN: The killing was caught on video, sparking two weeks of unrest across the country. Here in Marseille, a 27-year-old man died during the riots, likely after being hit by a flash ball-type police projectile. Last month, prosecutors brought in five officers for questioning over the incident. The Marseille police declined to comment for this report, but Joseph Downing says the French government has left them in a difficult situation.

DOWNING: They're understaffed, they're underfunded, and they are increasingly operating in an environment where heavy military-grade weapons are available.

ROSMAN: He means available to criminals. In Marseille, two rival gangs are vying for control of the city's expansive drug market. Marseille's public prosecutor calls the violence a bloodbath in which 36 people have died so far this year. Community leader Amine Kessaci knows this situation all too well. Several years ago, his older brother's body was found inside the trunk of a car that had been set on fire, killed, he says, after befriending the wrong crowd.

(SOUNDBITE OF KEYBOARD CLACKING)

ROSMAN: That's when Kessaci founded his own nonprofit, the Conscience Association, which works on creating more opportunities for young people while helping grieving parents deal with loss.

KESSACI: (Speaking French).

SORAYA LARBI: (Speaking French).

ROSMAN: Today, he's helping a woman named Soraya Larbi file a formal complaint against police. She says her niece was killed after police fired shots at a car in which she was riding.

LARBI: (Speaking French).

ROSMAN: "I understand that there are some good police officers who do their job honestly here in France," she says, "but I'd put that at 10%. Everything else, it's anarchy."

(JEERING)

ROSMAN: When French President Emmanuel Macron came to this area in June, he was met with a wave of boos. For the second time in two years, he made a vow to rid these neighborhoods of violence and clean up the streets, a promise that still feels empty, says Kessaci, who says most people in this area have given up on Macron's administration.

KESSACI: (Speaking French).

ROSMAN: Most of what the government sees in these neighborhoods, he says, is the misery, the poverty, the crime, the blood.

KESSACI: (Speaking French).

ROSMAN: And we have all that, he says. But there's also one thing that can't ever be taken away from us, our solidarity.

For NPR News, I'm Rebecca Rosman in Marseille. 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.

Rebecca Rosman

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