Is the punching of a Paris protester a one-off or part of a wider problem with French policing?

Is the punching of a Paris protester a one-off or part of a wider problem with French policing?
Methods of policing protests in France have come under scrutiny. Photo: AFP
An inquiry has now been launched after an officer was caught on camera in Paris punching a detained protester in the face. But is this part of a wider problem with the French police?

French prosecutors said on Sunday that an inquiry had been launched after the footage went viral, showing a French police officer apparently punching a prone and detained protester in the face.

The footage was filmed in Paris on Saturday, during scuffles that broke out between police and protesters after a 'yellow vest' march.

 

But this incident is far from the first involving allegations of police brutality.

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The footage of the police officer was widely shared on social media. Photo: AFP

Over the summer French president Emmanuel Macron sparked anger from police unions when he told the Presidential Press Association that there were “unacceptable injuries” suffered by both police and protesters during the months of 'yellow vest' protests.

He added that: “This should lead us to rethink certain methods of intervention.”

Since then he has also said that the “unacceptable behaviour” of some officers risked undermining the “credibility and dignity” of the force.

Is there a problem with policing in France?

The policing methods for protests have certainly been under the spotlight in recent months with the Compagnies républicaines de sécurité (CRS), the specialist unit that deals with crowd control, singled out for harsh criticism.

The months of 'yellow vest' protests saw violence from both sides, but dozens of protesters were seriously injured, with several losing a hand or an eye from the controversial Flash Ball riot guns used by French police.

The subject of police brutality became an extra strand to the 'yellow vest' campaign and there have been several demonstrations on the subject, with marchers holding up pictures of the gruesome mutilations suffered by some participants in demonstrations.

In November the trial began of an officer who is accused of hurling a paving stone at protesters during a demo in Paris.

It should be pointed out that several police officers have also been injured during the protests, and on one demonstration a group of 'yellow vests' were heard taunting police and telling them to 'commit suicide' – a reference to the very high suicide rates seen within the French police force.


Antoine Boudinet and Patrice Philippe were both wounded during 'yellow vest' protests. Photo: AFP

But in addition to the issues with 'yellow vest' demonstrations including the most recent, there have been two other incidents that further damaged the reputation of French policing.

One was in July when police in Paris were filmed spraying teargas in the faces of peaceful climate change protesters who were holding a sit-down demonstration about France's environmental policies. The footage went round the world and drew sharp criticism.

The other incident happened in Nantes during the Fête de la musique when a group of techno fans were ordered to stop partying and go home at about 4am. When they refused they were charged by police and several fell into the river, including a 24-year-old teaching assistant named Steve Canico who could not swim.

He was missing for several weeks before his body was eventually found in the river, and during that time the 'Où est Steve' (where's Steve) protest movement began to highlight what many felt was a typically heavy-handed police response.  

There have been several marches protesting the police's handling of the situation in Nantes, as well as the police watchdog report that cleared the officers involved of any wrongdoing.


The death of Steve Canico sparked a nationwide protest about police brutality. Photo: AFP

So what's going to be done about it?

There have been various inquiries launched into separate incidents and more cases are expected to come to court over the next few months.

But in terms of wider policy or culture changes, not much seems to be happening.

Macron's comment about “rethinking” methods of policing protests was not followed by an kind of policy announcement.

In the same comment, he also said he was “very vigilant” about the levels of fatigue among police officers.

French police forces have been stretched tight recently, with the months of nationwide protest following terror attacks and coming at a time when many departments were already short staffed, leading to a heavy burden of overtime and cancelled leave.

This has been cited as one factor behind the worryingly high suicide rates among French officers – an average of one suicide every four days.

How have the police reacted?

But even one somewhat vague comment about a review of methods has been enough to spark an angry response from the UNSA Police union, which represents officers of the CRS.

Interviewed by radio station France Info, the union's national secretary David Michaux said he was shocked and considered the president's words “offensive”.

He told the radio station: “We are quite surprised by the desire to question the method of employment of the police, given that for us it works very, very well.”

He added that the police have acknowledged shortcomings and errors in the policing of the 'yellow vest' protests, but had improved methods of communication and become more reactive at deploying specialist units of CRS officers to places where they were needed. 

Although the 'yellow vest' movement itself has largely fizzled out, there have still been sporadic outbreaks of trouble – particularly in Paris – as 'Black Bloc' hooligans have attached themselves to protests including 'yellow vest' demos and union marches against pension reform before smashing up bus shelters, overturning cars and setting fire to street furniture.

Sixty people were detained after Saturday's protest at which cars were overturned in the streets and fires started.

 

 


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  1. So, the police are supposed to allow protesters to destroy public and private property because they don’t like what is going on in the government or France wins a sporting event? How many times should these anarchists be able to break windows and steal on the Champs Elysee? These people are the thugs. Why bother to have police at all?

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