PARIS – French police defied a ban on mass gatherings to protest what they see as a lack of government support, marching shoulder to shoulder on Friday on the Champs-Elysees to show their anger against new limits on arrest tactics and criticism of alleged violence and racism in their ranks.
France this week announced an end to chokeholds is part of government efforts to stem police brutality and racism in the wake of global protests over George Floyd’s death in the U.S. But French police have especially taken issue with any implication of systemic racism and excessive violence.
The national police on Tuesday released its latest figures on incidents of violence, showing a steady rise in investigations — from 575 in 2017 to 868 last year. According to the report, 49 officers received internal sanctions for excessive force. But it did not say how many resulted in criminal charges or convictions. Allegations of racial discrimination rose in 2017 and 2018, and were excluded from the 2019 report altogether.
Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said Monday any “strong suspicion” of racism would be punished, in response to investigations into racist comments on closed Facebook and WhatsApp groups for police.
Friday's protest was small but highly visible, with honking, flags and blue smoke billowing under rainy skies. As officers marched close together, with hardly a mask in sight, Paris police issued a bulletin confirming that anti-police protests planned this weekend were banned because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Friday's group walked unimpeded to the interior ministry, which is next to the presidential palace and has been barricaded against demonstrators since the 2018 yellow-vest protests that frequently ended in violent clashes. Uniformed guards appeared startled at the arrival of the protest but did not intervene. After observing a minute of silence for dead police officers, protesters sang the French national anthem, spoke briefly and dispersed.
“French police are the most controlled in the world, so when there are certain lapses by a tiny minority, don't stigmatize all police,” said Fabien Vanhemelryck of the Alliance police union. He accused politicians of responding hastily to a crisis in the United States “that has nothing to do with us."
Police unions met Thursday and Friday with Castaner to discuss changes to police tactics after the minister announced Monday that officers would no longer be taught to seize suspects by the neck or push on their necks. Castaner stopped short of banning another technique — pressing on a prone suspect’s chest — that also has been blamed for leading to asphyxiation and possible death. That technique is notably criticized by French activists seeking justice for Adama Traoré, a young black man who died after being tackled by police.
Neck immobilization techniques have come under growing criticism since Floyd’s death. But French police say the new restrictions go too far.
“He doesn't even know what he's talking about,” said Jean-Paul Megret, another police union leader. “Sometimes you can't just ask people to follow you to be arrested. Every day, you're dealing with people who are completely insane.”
But David Curiel, a lawyer whose client had called police to report a woman being attacked on the street, only to have the arriving officers turn on her instead, said the culture of impunity runs deep.
A video shot by a bystander exonerated the 43-year-old woman of charges she'd attacked police, showing the officer kicking her in the leg unprovoked. The officer and his partner both testified that the 43-year-old woman was aggressive even though seven eye witnesses corroborated the version seen on video. Curiel is appealing the decision to drop charges against the officer.
“We had the proof, we had the name of the officer, we had the video. If we had relied upon the police investigation, we would have had nothing,” Curiel said.
Unions floated the idea this week of widening the use of stun-guns, which are only available to a handful of specialized officers, but the police protesters were primarily pushing for a return to the chokehold.
Since June 2nd, France has seen several protests sparked by the resonance between the deaths of Floyd and Traoré, and other allegations of police killings and racism. Another protest is planned Saturday.
Last week, the Paris prosecutor’s office opened a preliminary investigation into racist insults and instigating racial hatred, based on comments allegedly written in a private police Facebook group.
Website Streetpress published a string of offensive messages that it said were published within the group, though acknowledged that it is unclear whether the authors were officers or people pretending to be police. Some of the reported comments mocked young men of color who have died fleeing police.
Separately, six police officers in the Normandy city of Rouen are under internal investigation over racist comments in a private WhatsApp group. Both incidents have prompted public concerns about white supremacist, homophobic and misogynistic views among French police.