While France was gripped with horror over rioting that started in the suburbs put pushed on nearly to the center of Paris, a 16-year-old boy has been hailed as a hero for saving the life of an innocent child from certain death in a car set alight by protesters. Emmanuel Toula, who has been described by French police as a black youth, was among the many protesters who turned out in the streets to denounce police brutality.
Toula does not call himself a hero. But on February 12 and at his first protest, Toula saw a car surrounded by fellow protesters who were setting fire to a trash car next to the vehicle. It was then that a terrified woman leaped out of the car and took a young boy with her. It was then that Toula approached the car and saw that there was still a terrified little girl inside. “I was afraid because I imagined the car could explode at any moment. I have four little brothers and two little sisters and I thought I could not leave a little girl like that.”
Protesters began rocking the car and placed burning trash around it to ignite it. Taking his “courage in both hands,” Toula sprang into action as fire began to erupt from the hood of the car. He opened the door to free the child. “I tried to remove her belt, my hands and arms still trembling,” Toula said. “Then I took her in my arms and I tried to run.”
Police began firing tear gas at them as they fled. Toula heard the deafening detonations of tear gas grenades all around. The car burned and then exploded.
When Toula unsuccessfully searched for the girl’s mother, he left her with a police officer and again went to look for the mother. Toula did not find her and then lost track of the officer and the child.
A police officer later provided verification of Toula’s actions. According to the Bondy Blog, “It was a young black man who came to help a child who was still in the car while the trash was burning beside it,” a police officer confirmed. “Once the occupants evacuated, the car was turned over by rioters and ended up charred by the flames.”
Police later tweeted: "The Prefecture of Police salutes the courage of the young man who yesterday released the little girl from the burning car."
, a prominent writer for the French versions of Slate
and Vanity Fair
, has called for the government to award Toula membership in the Legion of Honor.
More than two weeks of protests that degenerated into rioting and arson were sparked by the alleged beating and sodomization of a young black man, identified solely as “Theo,” while under arrest by police. A police officer has since been arrested and charged with sexual assault and two more charged with brutality. Theo treated in a local hospital for his injuries and underwent emergency surgery for anal tearing.
“I identified myself with Theo because I thought that what happened to him could have happened to me,” Toula said. “For me, it was a civic duty to be there, I had to do my part.”
Rioting has steadily intensified as armed protesters have set cars alight and confronted police. A video emerged on Twitter that showed police fleeing in the face of a rampaging mob.