Two French police officers went on trial Monday in the northwestern city of Rennes, charged with failing in their responsibility to help two teens who were electrocuted as they hid from police in a power substation on the outskirts of Paris. A third teen suffered serious burns.
The boys' deaths in 2005 triggered three weeks of rioting across France and violent clashes between youth and the police, forcing then Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin to declare a national state of emergency — a first since the Algerian war, in 1955.
In a case that has dragged on for ten years, the court will seek to determine whether or not Officer Sébastien Gaillemin and receptionist Stéphanie Klein were aware of the danger the boys were in, and failed to help them. According to French law, everyone has a legal duty to help a person in danger, providing they, or others, are not endangered in the process.
According to reports, Gaillemin saw the teens running toward the substation and did not warn them of the risk of entering the area. Gaillemin allegedly radioed colleagues for backup, saying, "If they enter the site, I wouldn't bank on them coming out alive." Klein is accused of failing to notify energy company EDF that the youths had entered the substation.
Daniel Merchat, the two officers' attorney, has argued that his clients "were never certain that there were people on the site." Meanwhile, the lawyer for the families of 15-year-old Bouna Traore and 17-year-old Zyed Benna has described the two teens as "victims." The case has highlighted the deep socio-economic rifts in France, and the underlying tensions between the police and disenfranchised youths who have been relegated to housing projects on the outskirts of Paris and other cities.
Families of the victims are hoping that the trial will bring an end to a ten-year legal battle, and a decade of back-and-forth between various French courts.
The original complaint was lodged by the victims' families within days of the teens' deaths, triggering an investigation into police responsibility on the night of the incident. A 2006 investigation by the General Inspection Service (IGS) — the police's internal police force — found the officers not guilty of wrongdoing. An investigating judge in the Paris suburb of Bobigny sent the case before a criminal court in 2010, but the officers appealed the decision. In 2011, an appeals court in Paris sided with the two officers, and judges dropped the charges against them. But in October 2012, the Court of Cassation — France's highest court — overturned the ruling. In 2013, the Chamber of Instruction of the Rennes Appeals Court was tasked with revisiting the issue.
Three weeks of riots
On Thursday, October 27, 2005, ten or so friends from the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois were playing soccer in the stadium of the neighboring town of Livry-Gargan. At around 5pm, the boys decided to leave the stadium in order to be home by 6pm, when their families would be sitting down to break their Ramadan fast. The group walked home through an off-limits construction site, prompting a neighbor to report a break-in to the police.
A crime squad vehicle soon arrived on site, causing the teens to flee. While police were busy stopping some of the youths, 15-year-old Traore, 17-year-old Benna, and 17-year-old Muhittin Altun, the son of Kurdish migrants, ran toward an EDF substation. They were soon surrounded by police. At 6:20pm, the neighborhood of Chêne-Pointu suffered a power outage.
The three boys had tried to hide in a 20,000-volt transformer inside the substation. Traore and Benna died from electric shock while their friend Altun escaped with severe burns.
The news of Traore and Benna's deaths spread fast, and that same night, the suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois went up in flames. Between October 27 and 31, youths on the outskirts of Paris torched nearly 100 vehicles, and the police made 40 arrests.
The unrest soon spread to other areas of France, affecting 300 towns at the height of the riots, which saw youths clashing with law enforcement authorities, vandalizing public schools, and torching vehicles.
From the night of November 5 to November 8, an average of 1,000 vehicles were torched each night, and 300 people arrested. On November 7, enraged rioters wounded 35 police officers, and the next day, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin declared a national state of emergency, granting police exceptional powers and authorizing local authorities to impose curfews.
The country was rocked by sporadic violence until November 17. An estimated 9,000 vehicles were torched during the riots, and 3,000 people were arrested.
Ten years on, the riots remain the symbol of the social malaise that characterizes France's poor suburbs, and the stark reminder of the massive economic and social divide at the heart of French society.
On Monday the victims' families gave their version of events in a trial that is expected to last a week. If convicted, the two police officers could face up to five years in prison and 75,000 euros ($79,000) in fines.
Follow Pierre Longeray on Twitter @PLongeray