A crimson lake pools around he Fountain de la Plece Royale in Nantes, reflecting the summer sunshine. Pale marble sculptures with black armbands, newly attached, stand knee deep in a sea of vivid red dye. A white sheet hangs over the head of a statue in the centre of the fountain. It reads “Steve” hand painted in large, untidy black letters. The carmine water is an answer, of sorts. A full stop to a question that has been hanging over Nantes for weeks now. Where is Steve?
Fête de la Musique
22nd June was a balmy summer’s evening on the bank of the Loire. Techno music fan, Steve Caniço, partied with friends into the night at a free local music festival, part of the Fête de la Musique, an annual music festival held across France. Videos of Steve enjoying the festival, laughing, smiling, joking and dancing with friends flood social media. He looks like any regular 24 year old as he goofs around. Huge, vibrant green eyes stare enthusiastically from behind black rimmed glasses. He pulls a face as he dances. His arms wave above his head, loose and carefree. Five weeks later, Steve’s body was retrieved from the river Loire.
A party that went on 30 minutes too long
French media report how later that night, after the festival had finished, some concertgoers continued the party for an additional 30 minutes. There are mixed reports after that time. The police claim bottles were hurled by a small group partygoers refusing to leave. What followed was a police charge towards the partygoers, pushing them in the direction of the river. During the chaos and panic that ensued, police used tear gas, dogs and batons to disperse the crowd. Fifteen people reportedly fell into the rapid flow of the dark, cold, water of the Loire that night. 14 people were rescued. Steve, who could not swim, remained ‘missing’ for 5 weeks afterwards.
Where is Steve?
Video footage of the crowd being herded towards the river Loire was posted on social media prompting protests and hashtags demanding #WhereIsSteve? along with #JusticePourSteve and #stevecanico. National protests have been a regular occurence since then. Human chains. Candlelit vigils. Persistent “Where is Steve?” questions. A giant street art fresco has appeared, depicting the events that night, freshly painted on a wall in Wilson’s Wharf, Nantes. The wall is a tribute to the 24 year old as well a reminder that claims of excessive police force have become a constant theme in France.
People are understandably angry. The circumstances surrounding Steve’s death have fed into a wider narrative, one around the routine use of unnecessary force by French police. Each week there are reports of rubber bullets, batons and tear gas during the regular Gilets Jaune protests. More recently, reports of tear gas being used against Algerian football supporters celebrating after their Africa Cup of Nations win against Senegal. There were families with children present during those celebrations. Images of tear stained, terrified children standing on the sides of the Champs Elysees circulated on social media. There was scant coverage elsewhere.
A State Affair
The police version of events on 22nd June tells a different story. A preliminary internal report found no link between the actions of the police on that night by the Loire, and Steve’s death, despite the video footage and eye witness accounts. The bleeding fountain bearing Steve’s name in Nantes is a visible measure of the anger felt nationally in response to that report. The lawyer representing Steve’s family told the New York Times that his death is now “A state affair.” This week French Prime Minister, Édouard Philipe spoke of a “Tragedy that touches us all” and “a determination to achieve total transparency” on the day that Steve’s body was recovered. It is hard to see how this can be achieved when the police have effectively investigated themselves.
There have been demands for an independent inquiry to uncover what happened. People want answers. A second investgation has been sanctioned, this time by the Inspector General of the Administration. The results have been promised within 4 weeks. France waits to hear the outcome.
In a world of fake news and political spin we may never know what happened that night. One thing we do know, as Mounir Balhamiti, Nantes deputy for La République En Marche, France’s ruling party stated “No one can say that an intervention that led a dozen youths to throw themselves in the Loire was proportionate.”
A ban on remembering Steve
A proposed rally in the centre of Nantes to commemorate Steve on Saturday 3rd August has been banned by the French authorities in Loire-Atlantique. The demonstration looks set to proceed regardless. It remains to be seen how the police will respond now that France is watching Nantes.