By Gaelle Legrand
FRANCE’S National Police have been in the spotlight twice within a week for its brutal handling and conduct.
Last Monday, the dismantling of a protest refugee camp in the centre of Paris was caught on television picturing the shocking way police forces pulled up tents, throwing off people to the floor.
That Thursday, a video published online by Loopsider showed the beating of Michel Zecler, a music producer who was arrested for not wearing a mask as he walked in his studio.
And on Sunday, the French investigative website Mediapart unearthed a new video from April 2019, showing police officers wearing civilian clothes stopping a car with six youngsters without motive, and shooting twice towards the driver.
It comes at a tense time in the country; a Global Security Bill recently passed through Parliament would limit filming and sharing videos of police officers in action while giving extra power to police forces locally.
Is there a rise in police violence?
These scenes add to several incidents involving the police in the past few years, like injuries suffered by 2500 Yellow Jackets protesters, some being dismembered with missing eyes or hands due to the riot police’s heavy equipment.
Earlier this year in January, delivery driver Cédric Chouviat died from asphyxia and a broken larynx after his arrest by three French police officers.
His last words, like George Floyd, were “I’m suffocating” as the officers pressed against him.
As two of the four police officers charged with assault against Michel Zecler were put on remand, Alliance police union criticised the media and political treatment of these affairs.
Union delegates talked about anger and disillusion among police officers and encourage them not to take risks or initiatives in their mission.
In an interview with Ouest-France, Alliance union general delegate Frédéric Lagache said: “We feel like we’re being made to believe that the police is a no-go zone where everything is allowed and nothing is controlled.”
But the sector has also been accused of racist behaviours by defendants, victims, the Defender of Rights and police officers themselves. In his testimony, Zecler asserts that he’s been racially abused during the 15-minutes assault.
In an investigation led by StreetPress, sergeant and whistleblower Amar Benmohamed said of racism within the force: “If I’m talking today, it’s because I’ve done everything I could to resolve this issue and it failed.”
With 2093 protests in 2019, and high terrorism alert levels, French police forces have declared being strained at multiple occasions.
The coronavirus pandemic has also led to a reorganisation of officers’ duties, controlling travel certificates and shop openings. Nonetheless, the number of protests has decreased since 2009, its lowest levels in the past decade.
No official numbers of police violence is recorded by authorities, but reporter David Dufresne lists testimonies on his Twitter account and on Allô place Bauveau, a platform on Mediapart’s website.
The website also documents failures of the General Inspectorate of the National Police (IGPN) – also called “the police of police” – whose aim is to assess and handle the functioning of police officers.
Former Interior Minister Christophe Castaner proposed a police reform last year, his successor Gerald Darmanin is yet to announce a change in the way the institution is organised and supervised.
In a hearing at the Parliament law commissions on Monday, the Minister recognised structural failures in the police and suggested a reshuffle of IGPN.
For France 24, director of CESDIP (Centre for Sociological Research on Law and Penal Institutions) Jacques de Maillard talked about the difficulty to reform the police.
He said: “The system needs to be completely reassessed, beginning with practices on the ground and prioritising good relations with the public and the proportionate use of force. The police institution needs to do something about the cynicism that is spreading among the police and that sometimes leads to tragedies.”
Is France leaning towards an authoritarian state?
Critics of police violences come as the Global Security Bill passed its first stage in Parliament, voted by a majority of 388 MPs.
As crowds took to the streets last Saturday defending press freedom and fighting against violences, Prime Minister Jean Castex announced the rewriting of the contested Article 24 on Monday.
But the Bill also gives extra powers to the local police and enables drone surveillance for law enforcement.
The turnaround comes as Mr Darmanin was summoned by President Macron for his “chaotic management” of the situation. The whole sequence about police violence and infringement to press freedom is said to have triggered the President’s anger.
His party, La Republique En Marche, already suffered a blow last spring by losing its majority in Parliament.
The Global Security Bill emphasises internal divisions. Some MPs like Nathalie Sarles have criticised a Bill that “goes too far”.
In an interview to France Bleu radio where she explained why she would not vote in favour of the Bill, she said: “We’re slowly going towards an authoritarian state, towards a suppression of individual liberties.”
In a move to please the right of his party and potential electors before the 2022 Presidential elections, Macron did not even speak about getting rid of his Interior Minister.
More than 50 per cent of police officers declared having voted for the far-right party National Front (renamed Rassemblement National) in 2015’s regional elections, according to a CEVIPOF study from 2017.
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