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Body of Concertgoer Found in France Fuels Anger Over Use of Force

PARIS — The body of a missing young man was found in France’s Loire river this week, over a month after he disappeared at a concert where police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd, fueling anger over the use of force by the French police.

Steve Maia Caniço, a 24-year-old who ran extracurricular activities at a school, disappeared last month after attending a techno music concert on the banks of the Loire river, on an island in the western city of Nantes. His body was found on Monday a little over half a mile from the area where the concert had taken place.

Friends had suspected that Mr. Caniço — who they said did not know how to swim — had fallen into the river and drowned. As the police confronted revelers with tear gas after the concert, 14 people had to be rescued from the water. In the month he was missing, Mr. Caniço’s disappearance grew into a cause nationwide, as critics called it the latest example of excessive police tactics.

Hundreds of protesters gathered earlier this month in Nantes to form a human chain along the Loire river, asking, “Where is Steve?”

The discovery of Mr. Caniço’s body has now drawn a tragic line under the events, which remain disputed, forcing even top government officials to weigh in.

Speaking in Paris on Tuesday, Édouard Philippe, France’s prime minister, called Mr. Caniço’s death a “tragedy that affects us all.” But he emphasized that “over 5 weeks after the events, how that evening unfolded and the sequence of events remain unclear.”

“The government’s commitment, that of the interior minister, and my personal commitment, is to shed all the light on the causes of this tragedy, and to draw all of the conclusions,” he said.

He said an initial report by the police’s internal oversight body had not found any direct ties between the police operations and Mr. Caniço’s disappearance. He also announced that he had requested a higher-level governmental investigation to understand how the event had been organized by local and state authorities.

But Cécile de Oliveira, a lawyer for Mr. Caniço’s family, called the police’s internal report “disappointing,” and said she had much more trust in the separate investigation that was opened by prosecutors on Tuesday.

“The affair of Steve Maia Caniço’s death has become a state affair,” Ms. Oliveira said in a telephone interview, adding that while it was up to the investigation to determine how exactly Mr. Caniço had died, she was confident that his fall into the Loire river occurred at the same time as the police intervention.

The controversy surrounding Mr. Caniço’s death has fed into wider anger over police brutality, especially after months of sometimes violent Yellow Vest protests against President Emmanuel Macron, during which the police massively used tear gas and rubber bullets against demonstrators.

Calls on social media of #JusticeforSteve echoed similar campaigns for people like Zineb Redouane, an 80-year-old grandmother who died in Marseille last year after a tear-gas canister hit her in the head at her apartment window, or Adama Traoré, a 24-year-old black man who in 2017 died of asphyxiation in custody after fleeing a police identification check.

Pierre Sennès, the local prosecutor in Nantes, said in a statement on Tuesday that his office had opened a manslaughter investigation that would be led by two investigative judges.

Under French law, these special magistrates handle the most complex or serious criminal cases and have broad investigative powers. The investigation is not targeting a specific person at this stage, but Mr. Sennès said in his statement that the investigative judges would seek out any “possible criminal responsibilities.”

Full results of an autopsy have not yet been released, and the exact cause of Mr. Caniço’s death has not been determined.

Ms. Oliveira, the lawyer, said those close to Mr. Caniço described him as “extremely nice,” a “dreamer” who was “discreet and friendly,” who didn’t use drugs and who had never had any run-ins with the law.

The free concert, attended by Mr. Caniço and some friends on June 21 — France’s national day of music celebration — unfolded peacefully until about 4 a.m. the following morning.

Most sound systems along the river banks were turned off by that time, but one group of revelers continued to party, on a stretch of quay that did not have any railing.

The music was turned off after a first request by the police, but was then turned back on. According to French authorities, when the police returned, some of the concertgoers threw bottles and other projectiles at the security forces, who responded with tear gas and rubber bullets, in small clashes that lasted for about 20 minutes.

Footage from that night shows a scene of confusion, as some concertgoers can be seen scuffling with the police, and others can be heard yelling, “There is water behind” as riot police walk forward. Some participants told the French media that they were blinded by the tear gas and accidentally fell into the water.

Mr. Philippe, the prime minister, said that many questions remained about how the event had been organized, including why people were able to set up sound systems on a section of the river bank that lacks railing, and whether police officers stationed at the event had been properly informed about how to respond to any trouble.

The controversy has taken an increasingly political turn. Some of Mr. Macron’s political opponents, who say that his government has failed to fully acknowledge instances of police brutality or mistakes, have asked for a parliamentary inquiry.

Éric Coquerel, a representative for the far-left France Unbowed party in the lower house of parliament, asked on Tuesday why the “chain of command” had enabled an “unbelievable situation,” where “for 30 additional minutes of music you end up with the death of a young person.”

“All the truth must be shed on this terrible affair,” Mr. Coquerel told the BFM TV news channel.

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