clement meric

A fateful Paris shopping trip, and the death that rocked France

18-year-old anti-fascist college student Clément Meric was killed on the streets of Paris two years ago.

BphIgKLCEAE5GR1 Clément Meric, at an anti-homophobia rally in Paris in April 2013. LaylaVelours LaylaVelours

ONE SUMMER EVENING, Wednesday 5 June 2013, two groups of young people went shopping for clothes in Paris. What happened next would send shockwaves throughout France, and make headlines across the world.

The two groups, bitter rivals, had only one thing in common – a penchant for Fred Perry and Ben Sherman.

At around 6pm, three anti-fascist, far-left activists headed to a clothes sale down an alleyway on Rue Caumartin, a shopping street in the 9th arrondissement of Paris.

When they arrived upstairs, they found a group of skinheads already there, looking through the racks.

“Ah, I see the Nazis are doing their shopping,” one of them said. It set off an exchange of taunts, which escalated into threats, which spilled out on to the street below, starting a brawl.

In the mayhem, 18-year-old “model student” and anti-fascist, gay rights activist Clément Meric was punched so hard in the face that he was instantly knocked unconscious and fell to the ground.

He was declared braindead, and when he died the next morning, all hell broke loose.

What happened?

France Skinhead Fight Anti-fascists gather at the spot where Clément Meric was killed. Associated Press Associated Press

It’s been two years, but French investigators still don’t have a precise sequence of events leading up to the death of Clément Meric.

It seems, from witnesses on both sides, that the anti-fascist group did a lot of slagging upstairs, and waited out on the street for their rivals for around 40 minutes.

“We’ll be waiting for you downstairs,” one of them said.

Don’t buy too much – you’re going to have to run.

Both sides sent texts and made phone calls, and both sides brought “reinforcements.”

Two of those to arrive later were Esteban Morillo, a muscular, 20-year-old skinhead security guard, and Meric – a slight, skinny college student, just out of remission for leukaemia.

Nobody can agree on exactly how the tense confrontation turned into all-out violence, who threw the first punch, or – crucially – whether weapons were involved.

A fortnight later, CCTV footage emerged, but it seems to have raised more questions than it answered.

Église Saint-Louis-d'Antin 2.jpg The Church of Saint-Louis d'Antin on Rue Caumartin. The brawl that led to Meric's death took place just next to the church steps. Peter Potrowl / Wikimedia Peter Potrowl / Wikimedia / Wikimedia

France 2 television watched it, and came to the conclusion that the fatal encounter happened when Meric approached Morillo while his back was turned.

Morillo turned and struck Meric in the face. He said he punched him twice, but witnesses heard him shouting “One shot!” (in English) after the 18-year-old hit the ground.

Reports from the autopsy described “several” blows to the face, head and neck, as the cause of death.

Several witnesses say they saw one of the skinheads produce a knuckle duster in the lead-up to the brawl.

The skinheads have denied this, but French media, including Libération, reported text messages, collected as evidence, sent by one of them, 19-year-old baker’s apprentice Samuel Dufour.

LOL. I punched someone with your knuckle duster…He’s gone to hospital…Five against three…We beat the shit out of them.

The autopsy report, however, was inconclusive about the use of a knuckle duster.

The Aftermath

Within hours, Meric’s death had been linked to the extreme-right group “Jeunesses Nationalistes Revolutionaires” (Revolutionary Nationalist Youth), of whom some of the skinheads were supporters.

Five people, all of them part of the skinhead group, were arrested. Morillo quickly admitted delivering the fatal punch to Meric, but insisted he hadn’t intended to kill him.

Two of them – Dufour and Meric – remain charged to this day, although they have been released from prison, pending their trial for ”violence unintentionally leading to death.”

There was an outpouring of grief and anger throughout France, and beyond. Thousands gathered on the streets for vigils in Paris, as well as Marseille, Grenoble, and in Spain.

Professors and fellow students of Meric at the prestigious Sciences Po university in Paris, held an emotional vigil where they sang the popular French Resistance anthem “Chant des partisans.”

Rémi Hattinguais / YouTube

The killing of Clément Meric also had a profound impact on French politics.

In 2013, France was experiencing a worrying rise in anti-semitic and homophobic speech and attacks.

Just six weeks previously, President Francois Hollande’s government had legalised same-sex marriage, after a fractious public debate involving some extremist groups.

In fact, Meric himself was filmed at a tense counter-protest against same-sex marriage opponents, that April. He can be seen here, wearing a maroon t-shirt and bandana, carrying a banner that says “Homophobia kills.”

And the electoral threat posed by the rise of the far-right, anti-immigration National Front, meant mainstream French politicians didn’t need much convincing when popular outrage over Meric’s death led to a call for groups to to be dissolved.

Within 48 hours, France’s Socialist Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault had ordered the disbandment of Revolutionary Nationalist Youth.

Within a month, Interior Minister Manuel Valls had banned it and two other groups – Troisieme Voie (“Third Way”), and Envie de rever (“Dare to Dream.”)

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Now, approaching the second anniversary of Meric’s death, investigators are still working out the details, comparing dozens of competing versions of events.

One of the many groups he was active in, “Anti-fascist Action in the Paris Suburbs”, has planned a major demonstration in the capital on 6 June, to mark two years since the shocking death.

On Tuesday, police in Paris blocked off Rue Caumartin at 5.30am, for an eerie investigative exercise.

A judge stood at the spot where words and threats turned into lethal blows that evening. Some of the participants from that evening were asked to conduct a chilling reconstruction of the brawl.

Esteban Morillo, on leave from his house arrest, was there.

Only one person was missing.

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