A young far left activist has been left brain dead after a fight with skinheads in central Paris, sending shockwaves through the French capital amid concern over the rise of small extreme-right groups.
Politicians from either side of the spectrum condemned the incident, with some calling for the government to ban groups they say are becoming increasingly violent and brazen in their actions.
Far-right groups have been blamed for violent clashes that marred a number of recent protests over France’s legalisation of gay marriage.
The country’s interior minister Manuel Valls said the tragedy “bears the marks of the far-right”, while President Francois Hollande sent his “support and solidarity” to the family of the 18-year-old victim Clement Meric.
Reports diverge on what sparked the fight Wednesday outside a shop that sold clothes popular with far-right activists and skinheads near the St Lazare train station.
Police said a group of young “skinhead types” found themselves in the shop with another group that included Meric, sparking a wave of insults and jostling.
The skinheads then left the shop and waited for the group outside with other people, and the victim “was hit by one of the skinheads who wore a knuckleduster and fell on the pavement, hitting a bollard.”
A police source said the victim was involved in the “extreme left anti-fascist movement.”
One witness who wished to remain anonymous told AFP she was leaving work when she saw the tail-end of the fight.
“Lots of people were running in every direction and as the young people with shaved heads looked like they were leaving, they came back and suddenly a punch was thrown and the young man fell against the bollard,” she said.
“Afterwards, I looked after the victim who had blood flowing from his ear and nose.”
Left wing activists said the skinheads were part of the extreme right Revolutionary Nationalist Youth (JNR) group.
But Serge Ayoub, the leader of the JNR nicknamed “Batskin”, said his group was not involved in the incident, adding that the far left activists were the ones who left the shop first and waited for the skinheads, sparking the fight.
Naema, a 22-year-old student, said she saw the “aggressors running away after the aggression. When they saw they were not being followed, they stopped running. They then shook hands like you shake the hand of a friend… They were smiling.”
The violence in the heart of the popular shopping district of Paris has shocked the city.
Marine Le Pen, head of the far right National Front, said her party had “no link” with the “horrendous” incident.
Anne Hidalgo, the Socialist candidate in next year’s Paris mayoral race, condemned a “despicable act”, while France’s upper house Senate called it a “horrendous assassination.”
Left-wing parties — including France’s ruling Socialists — called for people to rally in Paris early on Thursday evening for “the dissolution of ultra violent far right groups”.
“It’s time we end this climate of violence. I call for the dissolution of these criminal groupuscules,” said Jean-Paul Huchon, the president of the Ile-de-France region which includes Paris.
On Twitter, the incident was one of the most talked about topics in France, with the name of the victim, JNR and #antifa, short for anti-fascist, all trending on the social network.