France has seen demonstrations in recent weeks against alleged brutality and racism by the police, a controversy that has gained resonance since protests erupted in the United States over the killing by police of George Floyd.
Cedric Chouviat, 42, had been stopped by police close to the Eiffel Tower in Paris on January 3rd for a traffic offence.
In video footage collected by investigators, he can be heard saying “I'm suffocating” seven times in 22 seconds as police hold him down, according to a report on the incident written in April, revealed on Wednesday by newspaper Le Monde and website Mediapart, which AFP has also seen.
Video footage appears to show Chouviat with the weight of the police on his torso. According to two witnesses, the delivery driver was held in a chokehold.
“Apart from the arrest, we did not notice any flagrantly violent words or noises,” said an expert who analysed footage of the incident.
“The exchange is relatively civil, even if we can sense a form of 'provocation' or 'defiance' in (Chouviat's) words,” the expert added.
According to analysis of the footage, Chouviat calls the policemen 'clowns' and one of them a 'loser' and tells them several times not to touch him.
“At 11 minutes 16 secondes (Chouviat) tells the policeman that he's a 'fool'. The officer decides to arrest him,” said the expert.
“In the next 22 seconds we can hear different sounds we cannot identify. The arrested person says several times 'I'm suffocating'. And we can hear one of the policemen say 'All good, all good, cuffs on.'”
Chouviat's plea echoes Floyd's last words “I can't breathe”, which have rallied protesters across the world.
Father of five Chouviat died in hospital two days after the arrest from asphyxia, with “a fracture to the larynx”, according to elements of the autopsy released by Paris prosecutors.
Prosecutors have opened a case for “involuntary homicide”.
None of the policemen involved has been suspended, and their lawyer Thibault de Montbrial declined to comment.
The police watchdog in charge of the investigation has transferred its findings to investigating magistrates who will now decide whether the four officers will be charged.
Chouviat's family has condemned what they term an act of unjustified police violence caused by what they said were “dangerous” restraint techniques.
His death came after that in 2016 of a young black man, Adama Traore, after he was similarly pinned to the ground with the combined body weight of three arresting officers, according to the testimony of one of them.
Following recent demonstrations against alleged police brutality, which young black and Arab men say is often directed at them, the French government this month announced the ban of the chokehold technique which critics say is too often deadly.
But a few days later, the government backtracked after a backlash by police unions, who demonstrated across France, throwing their handcuffs on the ground in protest.
In the days following Chouviat's death, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner promised sanctions against officers “if wrongdoings are established”.