In the wake of the death of George Floyd in police custody in the U.S. city of Minneapolis, the passionate debate has spread to France, sparking protests against alleged police brutality and racism. French policemen rebuke the criticism as unfair.
For the past few weeks, protesters in France have been demanding police reforms and the end an alleged police immunity. Their protests have met strong resistance from the security forces and their unions. Officers have been organizing counter-protests, throwing their handcuffs on the ground as a sign of anger and what they see as a lack of support by the government.
At one of those demonstrations – on the Champs-Elysées in Paris – a French police officer declined to give his name.
He believes police officers are stigmatized in France and he feels the need to speak out because, he says, the police are not racist. He says the other big issues that should be addressed are the chokehold technique and what he says is the lack of consideration of police officers. He says that five years ago (during the 2015 Paris attacks) French policemen were considered as heroes and now – he says - they would be nobody.
The chokehold is a controversial technique that the French government wanted to ban in order to show it has zero tolerance for racism and violence among its security forces. Facing a backlash from policemen and women, the authorities have backtracked. Instead, the government has ruled this technique will no longer be taught to police officers and prison staff, but the leadership stopped short of imposing a total ban.
Besides this important victory for them, policemen argue that they are being abandoned by the state. Police unions have been organizing frequent rallies to pressure the government.
The protests show how difficult it is to carry out a thorough reform of the police sector.
But Human rights advocates say the protests show France, and the world, have no choice. Cecile Coudriou, is president of Amnesty International in France.
“We think it is a sign that what we really need in France is a global reform, not only one measure or the other but a true revision of the doctrine itself, based on de-escalation because law and enforcement is too often based on repression, use of force before trying to rely on dialogue, communication and de-escalation,” said Coudriou.
In a further attempt to quell police officers’ discontent, France said it was widening the testing of tasers. French Interior minister Christophe Castaner pledged unconditional support for the rank and file.
He explains that only security forces have the authority to use legitimate force, that it is only they who defend democratic order. That, he says, is the core of their missions and they need to accomplish it with restraint and exemplarity. Castaner says French policemen should work without fear when they perform their duty according to the rules.
A police watchdog in France says it received almost 1,500 complaints against officers last year - half of them for alleged violence.