PARIS: Four French police on Sunday risked being charged over the beating and racial abuse of a black music producer that shocked France and intensified controversy over new security legislation.
Tens of thousands protested across France Saturday against the security bill — which would restrict the right of the press to publish the faces of on-duty police — with the rally in Paris ending in bitter clashes.
The beating of music producer Michel Zecler — exposed in video footage published last week — has become a rallying cause for anger against the police in France, accused by critics of institutionalized racism including singling out blacks and Arabs.
The protests in Paris saw a brasserie set alight, cars set on fire and stones thrown at security forces, who responded with tear gas and anti-riot tactics.
Among those hurt was an award-winning Syrian photojournalist, Ameer Alhabi, seen with a bruised face and much of his head covered in bandages in AFP photos.
Christophe Deloire, secretary general of Reporters Without Borders, tweeted that the 24-year-old had been wounded at Place de la Bastille by “a police baton” and condemned the violence.
Alhalbi is freelance photographer who has worked for Polka Magazine and AFP, who both condemned the incident in statements Sunday.
“We are shocked by the injuries suffered by our colleague Ameer Al-Halbi and condemn the unprovoked violence,” said Phil Chetwynd, AFP’s global news director, demanding that the police investigate the incident
Police said 62 officers were injured at the demonstrations and 81 people arrested, with Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin saying the violence in the protests was “unacceptable.”
Authorities did not have a tally for the number of marchers injured, saying only that two people outside the capital had complained of police violence.
Four police have been detained over the beating of Zecler, with three of them specifically probed for using racial violence as well as for making false statements.
Following questioning by the police’s National Police Inspectorate General (IGPN) they have now been handed over to the judicial authorities to decide on the next steps, which could see them being charged.
They could face a fast-track trial or a more standard procedure which would see a case being opened and the men appear before an investigating magistrate.
Paris prosecutor Remy Heitz is due to give an update on the measures to be taken against them from 5:00 p.m. (1600 GMT).
Commentators say that the images of the beating — first published by the Loopsider news site — may never have been made public if the contentious Article 24 of the security legislation was made law.
The bill would criminalize publishing images of on-duty police with the intent of harming their “physical or psychological integrity.”
It was passed by the National Assembly although it is awaiting Senate approval.
The controversy over the law and police violence is developing into another crisis for the government as President Emmanuel Macron confronts the pandemic, its economic fallout and a host of problems on the international stage.
Macron said Friday that the images of Zecler’s beating “shame us” and asked the French government to come up with proposals to “fight against discrimination.”
For critics, the legislation is further evidence of a slide to the right by Macron, who came to power in 2017 as a centrist promising liberal reform of France.
A series of high-profile cases against police officers over mistreatment of black or Arab citizens has raised accusations of institutionalized racism. The force has insisted violations are the fault of isolated individuals.