France set for new anti-racism protests as government vows zero tolerance in police

French cities braced for another round of anti-police brutality protests on Tuesday, a day after the interior minister promising "zero tolerance" for racism among the country's police forces.

France set for new anti-racism protests as government vows zero tolerance in police
Photo: AFP
“It's a step forward, but there is still a long way to go,” one protester told France Info on Tuesday morning, referring to Interior Minister Christophe Castaner's speech on police brutality and alleged racism the night before.
In a long-awaited press-conference on Monday, after a week of government silence on the on-going protests against police brutality and alleged racism,  Castaner said there would be “zero tolerance” for racism among the country's police forces.
“Racism has no place in the population, nor in the police,” he said, announcing to scrap the controversial detainment tactic known as 'chokehold' as well as increasing the independence of institutions set up to scrutinise allegations of police violence.
New protests are planned in Paris and several other big cities on Tuesday evening during the funeral of George Floyd – the African-American man whose death at the hands of a white police man in the United States sparked worldwide protests.
SOS Racisme France has called for everyone to wear masks during the protests, as France only recently eased a strict nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Racist social media groups

The death of Floyd hit a nerve in France and the public mood was further inflamed last week when media outlets published the contents of a private Facebook group on which police members repeatedly used racist and sexist terms and mocked victims of police brutality.

In another closed group on Whatsapp police officers mocked a fellow black officer with racist language. The officer has spoken to French media anonymously.

Castaner asked the gendarmerie and national police departments “that a suspension be systematically considered for each proven suspicion of a racist act or statement.”

Too many officers “have failed in their Republican duty” in recent weeks, Castaner said, with several instances of racist and discriminatory remarks revealed.

“It is not enough to condemn it,” said Castaner. “We have to track it down and combat it.”

But police unions questioned the changes.

The impression given is that “everyone is nice except the police who are mean,” said Philippe Capon of the Unsa-Police union.

Frederic Lagache on the Alliance Union said he feared that police will be reduced to “street fighting or the use of tasers”.

France, like countries all over world, has seen masses taking to the streets over the past week to protest alleged racism by law enforcement. Photo: AFP

'Chokehold' banned

The interior minister also said a police detainment practice known as 'chokehold' would be scrapped amid ongoing public anger over the death of a young black man named Adama Traoré in 2016 after he was pinned to the ground.

READ ALSO Who is Adama Traore and why are there protests in his name around France?

The practice “will be abandoned,” said Castaner. “It will no longer be taught in police and gendarmerie schools. It is a method that has its dangers,” he added.

He did however not ban the technique known as plaquage ventral – best translated to 'bodyslam' – where officers pin a suspect to the ground with the help of their bodyweight, because Castaner said, this technique is not taught to French police officers in school.

Adama Traoré's family claim he was killed as a result of the plaquage ventral technique used by his arresting officers.

Assa Traoré has been a front figure for the movement against police violence since her brother died in police custody in 2016. Photo: AFP

'Not a racist institution'

While the interior minister announced a tough stance on individual racist acts by police, he denied allegations that police in France suffered from institutional racism.

“I refuse to say that the institution is racist, but yes, there are racist police officers,” he said, reiterating what has been a common refrain in French rhetoric on racism and state institutions – individuals can be racist, not institutions of the Republic.

“We will never stop defending the honour of the police,” he said, stressing that “France is not the United States.”
Far right leader Marine Le Pen accused the interior minister of putting the police “at the mercy of the worst defamation”.
“This is the age of the suspicion and presumption of guilt for our security forces. It has nothing to do with the law”, said the president of the National Rally party.
Former Prime Minister Manuel Valls said “the police are not racist”, but racism, anti-Semitism and violence ran through society and the security forces “unfortunately do not escape these phenomena”.
1,500 complaints

Castaner's speech came the same days as France's police watchdog IGPN said it had received almost 1,500 complaints against officers last year, half of which were for alleged violence against civilians.

The IGPN report said nearly 40 percent of the cases reported last year arose from police action during protests, and 13 percent during identity checks.

Castaner said the government would “increase the independence” of the police watchdog to make it easier to intervene in specific cases.

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EXPLAINED: The new French law that restricts photos and videos of police officers

French MPs were set on Tuesday to debate the controversial security bill that, if passed, would ban all footage identifying police officers that is ‘disseminated to harm’. Here's what is being proposed.

EXPLAINED: The new French law that restricts photos and videos of police officers
Police evacuate 'yellow vest' protesters on November 17th, 2018, in Quimper, western France. Photo: AFP

What is the bill?

The proposed lawLoi relative à la sécurité globale (law on global security) is a major piece of security legislation covering issues regarding policing in France, several of which have drawn criticism.

Most controversial is the bill's clause 24, which would criminalise the publishing of any photos or videos where a police officer or gendarme could be recognised, if there is an intent to harm their “physical or psychological integrity”.

Article 24 bans “disseminating, by any means or medium whatsoever, with the aim of harming their physical or mental integrity, the image of the face or any other identifying element of an officer of the national police or member of the national gendarmerie when acting during a police operation.”

Offenders would risk one year in prison and a €45,000 fine.

The bill was later amended to include a precision that the intent to harm must be “manifest” and that the law should not interfere with press freedom.

READ ALSO Seven times videos revealed police violence in France

Is the bill likely to become law?

So far, the bill is just a proposal and must pass through both the French Parliament Assemblée Nationale and the Senate before becoming law.

It was proposed on October 20th by MPs from two parliamentary groups, ruling party La République en Marche and Agir ensemble, which is a group consisting of UDI MPs and independent MPs.

It's similar to a bill that came before the parliament in the spring, which failed to pass, but this time it has been backed by the Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin.

“My job as interior minister is to protect those who protect us,” Darmanin told BFMTV.

“I had made a promise, that it would no longer be possible to broadcast the image of the police and gendarmes on social media. That promise will be kept,” the interior minister said.

The bill is scheduled to be debated in the French parliament on November 17th. 

'Justice for Adama' (Traoré) echoed from the mouths of thousands of protesters during France's Black Lives Matter movement this spring, calling for truth on the young man who died at the hands of French police a few years back. Photo: AFP

What's the problem with the bill?

Critics, including Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Amnesty, the United Nations and France’s human right’s defender, say the bill could have dangerous democratic consequences.

If adapted in its current form, the law “would endanger journalists and press freedom”, RSF said.

Article 24 of the bill is problematic because intent is “open to interpretation and hard to determine”, they said.

While the bill would not outright ban filming or photographing a police officer, the wording left it up to the police to determine whether the person holding the camera was manifesting malicious intent. In the heat of the moment, that could lead to grave misjudgements, RSF said.

“When a journalist is filming them, police officers might assume that the video is being broadcast live with the aim to harm them and they could arrest the journalist,” said RSF spokesperson Pauline Ades-Mevel. “Even if the likelihood of conviction was low, the detained journalist would have been prevented from continuing to cover what was happening.”

In other words, the damage would already have been done.

A Le Monde editorial expressed the same worry: “By fear of conviction, the media may refrain from broadcasting images of incidents with police officers.”

Amnesty International France too condemned the principle of intent as too vague, telling Europe 1 it opened for “arbitrary” interpretations.

Journalist Guillaume Bernard, who covers social movements for French media Rapports de Force, said he would think twice before pointing his camera lens towards a police officer the next time he was covering a protest, if the law were adopted.

“There will always be this fear that if you include a police officer in your frame, they might put pressure on you to lower your phone or say you don’t have the right to film, even if you’re just doing your job,” he told The Local. 

In October 2019, Bernard was arrested during a ‘yellow vest’ protest in Toulouse he covered as a freelance journalist. After 24 hours and consistent pressure from several press groups, Bernard was released without charges.

“The reality is that journalists are under pressure from police already. This law will make the whole thing even more ambiguous: who will determine whether there is a desire to harm the police?” Bernard said now.

French police officers protested the government's attempt to ban a controversial “chokehold” detainment technic in the wake of the death of Black American George Floyd at the hands of US police, which sparked calls on stricter rules for policing in France. Outraged police threw their handcuffs on the ground. Photo: AFP

'This is terrible censorship'

But journalists were not the only ones who would be affected by the law, said David Dufresne, a French author and filmmaker who has covered police violence for decades.

“Regular citizens are those who really will suffer,” Dufresne told The Local. “This is censorship, terrible censorship.”

Dufresne’s latest film, Un pays qui se tient sage, is a documentary based on a collection of amateur footage captured by ‘yellow vests’ during the months of protests in 2019, which sparked a nationwide debate on police violence in France. 

“My film may not have been possible under this law,” he said, adding: “These images are key for victims of injustices to seek justice. There is no democracy without checks and balances.”

READ ALSO How the 'yellow vests' made France have a national conversation about police violence

A protester kicks back a tear gas can in Nantes on August 3rd, 2019, during a protest in the memory of Steve, a young man who drowned in the Loire river during a police raid of a music festival. Photo: AFP

Is this type of footage important?

Amateur footage, often shot on camera phones, has led to important discoveries regarding police violence such as when Ladj Ly, the later creator of the Oscar-nominated film Les Misérables, captured on camera the arrest of 20-year-old Abdoulaye Fofana, in Montfermeil, an impoverished part of the Parisian suburb Seine-Saint-Denis.

Police accused Fofana of having thrown cobblestones and shot fireworks at a police car together with others in the neighbourhood, but avoided including their own violent beatings of the young man during the arrest – including pointing a gun at him while handcuffed – which Ly's video revealed. That was back in 2008, France's first police violence case sparked by an amateur video, but one of many more to come.

Several videos shot during the 'yellow vest' protests also showed violent behaviour from police, some of which has lead to criminal charges.

So why is the law being proposed?

The government has fiercely defended the bill, claiming it is a necessary means to clamp down on violent acts directed at the country's police officers. 

In 2019, the year of the 'yellow vest' spring riots, police officers filed 38,519 complaints about violence, up by 18 percent compared to 2017, before the movement started. 

France has also seen several incidents where police officers and their families have been attacked or threatened in retaliation.

Police say the past year's massive upsurge in online footage of police on duty is making it easier for those aiming to harm to identify them and have welcomed the law proposal as long overdue.

“Videos showing the faces of police officers put them and their families at risk of retaliation,” Denis Jacob, General Secretary of the union Alternative Police told BFMTV.

“Wives of officers have been assaulted in the past as a result of videos being shown. Families should not be afraid of having a police officer among them,” Jacob said.

READ ALSO OPINION: French police are not just thugs, they are being placed in an impossible situation

Frédéric Lagache, the Deputy General Secretary of the national police union ALLIANCE denied that the bill went too far in restraining freedom of expression. Rather, he told The Local, the bill did not go far enough.

“By the time the decision is taken it will be too late, the images will already be circulating on social media,” he said.

“Our problem is not with journalists, it's with social media. Videos should not be published online, they should be taken in front of a public court.

“That said, if the choice is between press freedom and the security of my colleagues, I choose the security of my colleagues.”