Members of France’s Kurdish community and anti-racism activists joined together in mourning and anger on Saturday in Paris after three people were killed at a Kurdish cultural center in an attack that prosecutors say was racially motivated.
The shooting in a bustling neighbourhood of central Paris also wounded three people, and stirred up concerns about hate crimes against minority groups at a time when far-right voices have gained prominence in France and around Europe in recent years.
The suspected attacker was wounded and detained, and transferred Saturday to psychiatric care, the Paris prosecutor’s office said. The 69-year-old Parisian had been charged with attacking a migrant camp last year and released from jail earlier this month. For Friday’s shooting, he is facing potential charges of murder and attempted murder with a racist motive, the prosecutor’s office said.
Thousands gathered Saturday at the Place de la Republique in eastern Paris, waving a colourful spectrum of flags representing Kurdish rights groups, left-wing political movements and other causes.
The gathering was largely peaceful, though some youths threw projectiles and set a few cars and garbage bins on fire, and police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd. Some protesters shouted slogans against the Turkish government. Berivan Firat of the Kurdish Democratic Council in France told BFM TV that the violence began after some people drove by waving a Turkish flag.
Most demonstrators were ethnic Kurds of varying generations who came together to mourn the three fellow Kurds who were killed, who included a prominent feminist activist and a Kurdish singer who came to France as a refugee.
”We are devastated, really. We are destroyed because we lost a very important member of our community and we are angry. How is this possible?” said demonstrator Yekbun Ogur, a middle school biology teacher in Paris. “Is it normal for a man with a gun to sneak into a cultural place to come and murder people?”
Demonstrator Yunus Cicek wiped his tears away as spoke of the victims, and his fears. “We are not protected here. Even though I have political refugee status, I don’t feel safe. … Maybe next time it will be me.”
The shooting shook the Kurdish community and put French police on extra alert for the Christmas weekend. The Paris police chief met Saturday with members of the Kurdish community to try to allay their fears.
France’s Interior Ministry reported a 13% rise in race-related crimes or other violations in 2021 over 2019, after an 11% rise from 2018 to 2019. The ministry did not include 2020 in its statistics because of successive pandemic lockdowns that year. It said a disproportionate number of such crimes target people of African descent, and also cited hundreds of attacks based on religion.
Friday’s attack took place at the cultural center and a nearby Kurdish restaurant and Kurdish hair salon. Surveillance video from the hair salon shared online suggests people in the salon subdued the attacker before police reached the scene. The prosecutor’s office would not elaborate on the circumstances of his arrest.
Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said the suspect was clearly targeting foreigners, and had acted alone and was not officially affiliated with any extreme-right or other radical movements. The suspect had past convictions for illegal arms possession and armed violence.
Kurdish activists said they had recently been warned by police of threats to Kurdish targets.
In 2013, three women Kurdish activists, including Sakine Cansiz, a founder of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, were found shot dead at a Kurdish center in Paris.
Turkey’s army has long been battling against Kurdish militants affiliated with the banned PKK in southeast Turkey as well as in northern Iraq. Turkey’s military also recently launched a series of air and artillery strikes against Syrian Kurdish militant targets in northern Syria.