A planned French security law to strengthen police powers has turned into a political fiasco for the government of President Emmanuel Macron after police officers were filmed beating up a black man in Paris even as the legislation was being discussed by members of parliament.
The incident, revealed on Thursday, forced prime minister Jean Castex into a humiliating climbdown on the law after several last-minute amendments and official reassurances had already been issued in response to protests.
On Thursday night Mr Castex announced the establishment of an independent commission to rewrite a crucial clause in the legislation that would have made it harder to film or photograph police operations — although on Friday he yielded to objections from the heads of the Senate and the National Assembly and promised that the final text would remain in the parliament’s hands.
In the most egregious case to have inflamed public opinion, Michel Zecler, a music producer, was seen being repeatedly assaulted and injured by police on the night of November 21, apparently because he was not wearing a face mask in the street as required by regulations aimed at controlling the spread of coronavirus. He alleges they called him a sale nègre (“dirty nigger”).
The Elysée Palace said Mr Macron was “very shocked” by the video, which has been viewed more than 12m times, and his cabinet ministers lined up to condemn the violence of the policemen. The victim’s lawyer said the police falsely accused him of violent resistance and trying to seize their weapons when in fact they stormed into his office and began assaulting him.
Mr Zecler was detained for 48 hours and then released without charge; four police officers have been suspended and are being investigated.
Gérald Darmanin, the hardline interior minister who championed the controversial draft law, said the policemen had “sullied the uniform of the republic”.
In recent months, Mr Macron has wooed rightwing French voters with a series of measures to combat Islamist terrorism, curb illegal immigration and help the police in the fight against crime. Recent opinion polls show him to be increasingly popular among conservatives.
But the proposed security law is unpopular among liberals, on the left and in the media, with editors complaining that it will curb their right to free speech and their ability to report on demonstrations and police actions.
Meanwhile, the public examples of police brutality that have accompanied the debate in parliament have embarrassed the government, while the suggestion of racial abuse in the assault on Mr Zecler has revived simmering anger in France about police treatment of people of African and Arab origin.
Kylian Mbappé, the French footballer, posted a picture on Twitter of Mr Zecler’s bloodied face. He called the violence unacceptable and demanded an end to racism. He quoted a song from the rap artist Mélanie Georgiades, better known as Diam’s: “My France is a mixture, yeah, it’s a rainbow/That bothers you, I know, because it doesn’t want you as a model.”
Even before the Zecler incident, the proposed law had been called into question by video footage of a police operation to clear a makeshift immigrant camp installed by protesters in the Place de la République in central Paris on Monday.
The text of the controversial Article 24 has been sent to the Senate and will now be studied by the independent commission which is due to report in mid-January. It makes it a crime punishable by a year in prison and a €45,000 fine to “publish, by any means and in any medium, the face or any other identifying feature other than their official identity number” of a police officer or gendarme “with the manifest aim of causing them physical or psychological harm”.
Opponents of the law say they will demonstrate in Paris and elsewhere in France on Saturday. The opposition Socialist party said on Friday that Article 24 “represents a grave infringement of the freedom of information and of the press”.