”I”M NO HERO,’ insisted 16-year-old Emmanuel Toula after he rescued a child from a burning car set alight during last Saturday night’s youth uprising in the Bobigny suburb of Paris.
Nightly youth uprisings and anti-brutality protests have spread in Parisian suburbs since a young black man, identified only as Theo, suffered a brutal attack by a group of four police officers following an ID check in Aulnay-sous-Bois, with one officer allegedly using his truncheon to rape him, on 2nd February.
On Saturday 11th February, as protesters gathered in the northern suburb near Aulnay-sous-Bois to express their anger, 16-year-old Emmanuel Toula was protesting for the first time.
He spotted a small car being surrounded by young people who had started a fire in a garbage can nearby.
A terrified woman jumped out of the car, taking her young son with her. ‘At that moment, I approached the car and I saw a little girl,’ Emmanuel said. ‘She was terrorised. I was afraid because I imagined the car could explode at any moment. I have four little brothers and two little sisters and I thought I could not leave a little girl like that.’
No one seemed to have noticed the child as the rioters started rocking the car and putting burning garbage next to it, so Emmanuel decided to ‘take my courage in both hands’. With the fire creeping up the hood, he approached the car and opened the door. The little girl looked shocked but was not crying.
‘I tried to remove her belt, my hands and arms still trembling,’ Emmanuel said. ‘Then I took her in my arms and I tried to run. But that wasn’t the end of it, as police started firing tear gas canisters in their direction. I started to pick up speed and I felt the tear gas. Deafening grenades fell two metres from us.’
Emmanuel looked for the girl’s mother and watched as the car burned up and exploded. He left the child with a policeman and continued to search for the mother, but never found her and lost both the policeman and the girl. Paris police later appeared to claim in a report that they ‘had to intervene’ to help a girl from a burning car, but Emmanuel and three witnesses, including one policeman, confirmed it was the teenager who rescued the child, the Bondy Blog reports.
‘It was a young black man who came to help a child who was still in the car while the trash was burning beside it,’ a police officer confirmed. Once the occupants evacuated, the car was turned over by rioters and ended up charred by the flames.’
Police then clarified that the phrase may have been a miscommunication at the time of the report’s publication, saying that at no time had they wished to misrepresent the role of Emmanuel Toula in the drama. A police tweet then saluted his courage – #manifestation#bobigny La préfecture de police salue le courage du jeune homme qui a sorti, hier, la fillette de la voiture en feu. – Préfecture de police (@prefpolice) February 12, 2017
Last weekend’s protests, which had been flaring up in suburban Paris communities since February 2nd, had initially been peaceful but later several vehicles were set alight and shop windows were smashed as police and protesters clashed and police fired tear gas.
‘I identified myself with Theo because I thought that what happened to him could have happened to me,’ Toula said, explaining his reason for joining the protests. For me, it was a civic duty to be there, I had to bring my stone to the building.’
Last weekend there were clashes between youth and police in Bobigny and Aulnay-sous-Bois – north-eastern suburbs – and in Argenteuil, a north-western suburb, while overnight on Sunday protesters attacked a police station in Les Ulis on the southern outskirts of Paris.
The overnight confrontations in Les Ulis followed earlier clashes between police and protesters at the weekend, in which several dozen people were detained. In Les Ulis three police cars were damaged, French media reported. Police fired tear gas at youth, who responded by hurling paving stones and petrol bombs and several cars were set ablaze.
At least 11 people, including eight minors, were arrested in the northwestern Paris suburb of Argenteuil on Sunday. Around 50 people gathered in Argenteuil’s main square at around 5.30pm local time in response to a call posted on social media. Demonstrators hurled projectiles at police, setting fire to a vehicle and three rubbish bins.
The clashes came a day after similar scenes of violence erupted in the nearby suburb of Bobigny at a rally in support of Théo. High unemployment and racial tension blight several struggling neighbourhoods on the outskirts of Paris – commonly called the ‘banlieues’.
Police have been accused of heavy-handed methods in areas with large immigrant populations.
Theo, a 22-year-old youth worker, said that he left his house in Aulnay-sous-Bois on Thursday 2nd February and found himself in the middle of a police identity check, targeting drug dealers. He said the police operation quickly turned violent and he was set upon by four officers.
He struggled to make sure he was in the view of CCTV cameras, and asked the officers why they were doing this to him. He said one officer proceeded to pull his trousers down and rape him with a truncheon. ‘I fell on to my stomach, I had no strength left,’ he said. He was then sprayed with tear gas around the head and in the mouth and hit over the head, he said. He said he was then sodomised with a truncheon, as well as racially abused, spat at and beaten around his genitals.
Theo was then taken to a police station where he said a ‘much friendlier’ police officer saw his condition and sent him to hospital. He has undergone emergency surgery for severe injuries, which included anal tearing, and has been declared unfit for work for 60 days.
Interior Minister Bruno Le Roux suspended the officers and said the facts of the case must be established with ‘no ambiguity’. A lawyer for the officer facing the rape charge claimed any injury inflicted during the operation was accidental and that his client had ‘never wished at any time to cause any injury to the victim’.
A police union chief, Yves Lefebvre, claimed the rape charge was lodged in an attempt ‘to calm or to stop a violent outburst’. ‘The feeling of humiliation is felt by people,’ Abdallah Benjana, a former deputy mayor who lives in the neighbourhood said. ‘What are (the police officers) seeking? To provoke a spark? Isn’t there enough gunpowder in those neighbourhoods? Unemployment, insecurity, high rents… no perspectives for future. They do that to a young man, it can only explode.’
The tensions have revived memories of the 2005 riots around the French capital, when Aulnay-sous-Bois was one of the worst-affected areas. Theo remains in hospital, where he spoke to his lawyer. President Francois Hollande was pictured by Theo’s hospital bedside in the press and TV when he visited him last week.
French Interior Minister Bruno Le Roux denounced the ongoing unrest on Monday in a public appeal for calm. I condemn in the strongest possible terms all violence that took place over the weekend,’ he said. ‘I call for calm. I call for responsibility, for peace, for faith in the justice system.’
French media expressed fears that the banlieue riots could reach the scale of 2005, when violence gripped several French cities. One officer has been charged with rape while three others have received aggravated assault charges for the February 2nd attack.