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.