French police have defied a ban on mass gatherings, marching through central Paris to protest against new limits on arrest tactics and criticism of racism in their ranks. Limits to what they can do during arrests include a ban on chokeholds, following the killing of George Floyd in the US.
Police unions chose the famed Champs-Elysees avenue, that was scene to violent clashes with protesters just a few months ago, to demonstrate against what they see as a lack of government support.
The decision to ban chokeholds is part of government efforts to stem police brutality and racism amid global protests over Floyd’s killing. But officers have especially taken issue with any implication of systemic racism among French police.
Earlier this week, French interior minister Christophe Castaner said any “strong suspicion” of racism would be punished in response to investigations into racist comments on closed Facebook and WhatsApp groups for police.
The protest on Friday 12 June was small but highly visible, with horns, flags, and blue smoke blowing under rainy skies. It came after officers outside Paris laid their handcuffs on the ground outside some police stations.
Police unions met Castaner on 11 and 12 June to discuss changes to police tactics, after he announced 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 has also been blamed for leading to asphyxiation and possible death during police arrests.
Such immobilisation techniques have come under growing criticism since Floyd’s killing. Floyd died as a result of a police officer kneeling on on his neck for a period of nearly nine minutes. The risks posed by neck restraints are documented, and the technique is already banned in most European countries. Despite this, French police are arguing the new restrictions go too far.
“[Castaner] doesn’t even know what he’s talking about”, said Jean-Paul Megret, a police union leader. He went on to say:
Sometimes you can’t just ask people to follow you to be arrested. Every day, you’re dealing with people who are completely insane.
France has seen several anti-police protests sparked by Floyd’s killing, and another is planned for Saturday. Friday’s protest on the Champs-Elysees was striking because the avenue was repeatedly the scene of violence between police and the ‘yellow vest’ protesters late last year.
In the week beginning 1 June, the Paris prosecutor’s office opened a preliminary investigation into racist insults and instigating racial hatred based on comments allegedly written in a private police Facebook group.
Website Streetpress published a string of offensive messages that it said were published within the group, but acknowledged that it’s unclear whether the authors were officers or people pretending to be police. Some of the reported comments mocked young men of colour who have died fleeing police.
Separately, six officers in the Normandy city of Rouen are under internal investigation over racist comments in a private WhatsApp group. Both incidents have prompted public concerns about extreme views among French police.
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