“Everyone against the wall.” The French police operation that has sparked nights of clashes and a national controversy started like thousands of others — in the country's deprived suburbs.
It was a routine stop-and-search on the “3,000” estate in Aulnay-sous-Bois north of Paris by a group of four armed officers — a commonplace event but widely resented by local young people.
It ended with Theo, a 22-year-old talented footballer with no criminal record, being treated in hospital for severe injuries to his anus and rectal area, as well as head and face wounds.
He says one of the officers assaulted him with a baton, which has led to rape charges against him. All four have been suspended pending an investigation.
“Unless you've grown up on an estate, you can't understand what it's like here,” local man Chris, a 27-year-old security guard, told AFP. “The police that we see are aggressive. Insults are normal, so is violence.”
What has particularly angered people in the estate, a melting pot of different cultures and daily resentments, is that it happened to Theo, a well-liked local whose family is respected.
“When I hear (from the police version) that he hit a policeman, I don't believe it. With others, you could imagine, but not him,” added Chris, who has known the family since childhood.
President Francois Hollande visited Theo in hospital on Tuesday.
Police as enforcers
The incident has again cast a spotlight on the problem of community policing, with the scandal inevitably becoming a political issue in a presidential election year.
“There's an almost permanent hostility against the police,” academic Christian Mouhanna from the state-funded CNRS research centre told AFP.
“This is just the highly mediatised tip of the iceberg.”
At the entrance to the estate, where around 10 police vans are parked after nights of clashes and car-burning, a graffiti tag commonly found in the suburbs states it simply: “Fuck The Police!”
Part of the problem, says Mouhanna, is that for decades, governments have followed an old adage that says: “the start of good behaviour comes with being scared of the police.”
This idea of the police as enforcers, rather than public servants, is wrongly ingrained in the training and the culture of the security forces, he says.
Furthermore, reforms in the last 10 years have progressively removed vital local police from communities, while giving officers greater powers and more weapons.
In the latest example, the French parliament is debating a law drafted in the wake of a series of terror attacks that would give police more freedom to use firearms.
“If we want the police to have authority, there needs to be a sense of legitimacy,” he added. “But if you show authority only by force and that's how you manage relations with local people, then there's no legitimacy.”
On “3,000”, around a dozen young people who spoke to AFP this week gave similar accounts of aggressive and widespread stop-and-search checks.
“There's no communication with young people,” 24-year-old Babacar, an electrical engineer, told AFP. “As long as there's no mutual respect, it'll never get better.”
Others note that no politician has bothered to visit the scene.
“They're scared of the estates. They think we're savages,” Babacar adds over the noise of a circling police helicopter.
The police appear equally resentful.
“Why are you (the media) dragging us through the mud?” one police officer told AFP. “There's a presumption of innocence, right? They (the officers) have got family and children too. Think about them.”
Thousands of police staged spontaneous demonstrations last October after a firebomb attack on a patrol car south of Paris left a young officer with severe burns and in a coma.
Many held placards with “Tired of being a target” written on them.
A senior officer in the Essonne area where the patrol car was attacked last year says police do their best to work with local communities.
“We try to speak to them when they're still minors, but they're completely closed up, they don't realise the consequences for their futures,” Hanem Hamouda told AFP.
“Dialogue is non-existent.”
Victim calls for calm
Frederic Lagache, secretary general of the police union Alliance, says “relations between the police and the people are good, except where there's criminality.”
For the moment, “3,000” has calmed down after Theo issued an appeal from his hospital bed for his supporters to “stop the war, be united.”
Much now hinges on the judicial investigation, which many locals fear will exonerate the officers.
An initial police investigation concluded that video footage showed an officer “applying a truncheon blow horizontally across the buttocks” after Theo's trousers “slipped down on their own”.
“It's calmed down now,” said 24-year-old Mohamed, who like all other locals refused to give his surname. “But we want justice. If not, it's going to go off again, worse than 2005.”
That year saw mass riots centred around the same deprived area in the northern suburbs of Paris towards Charles de Gaulle airport. Around 10,000 cars were burned and 6,000 people were arrested.
By the AFP's Adam Plowright