France admits it has a police brutality problem - RTHK
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France admits it has a police brutality problem

2020-01-17 HKT 01:39
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  • Riot police on the streets of Lille this week. Ministers have ventured rare criticism of law enforcement following a series of scandals. Photo: AP
    Riot police on the streets of Lille this week. Ministers have ventured rare criticism of law enforcement following a series of scandals. Photo: AP
As the number of protesters badly injured at the hands of the security forces grows, the French government has been compelled to abandon its hear-no-evil, see-no-evil approach to police violence, experts say.

Several new alleged cases of police brutality, including the death of a man during an arrest operation in Paris and the use of rubber bullets against pension reform protesters, have propelled an issue that has plagued President Emmanuel Macron's government back to the top of the political agenda.

But whereas in the past Macron and his ministers' stock response was to defend a force that came under sustained attack during the "yellow vest" anti-government protests, the past week has seen a notable shift in tone.

On Tuesday, Macron warned that the "unacceptable behaviour" of some officers risked undermining the "credibility and dignity" of the force.

While slamming the "violence and political nihilism" seen throughout 16 months of street protests – first by the yellow vests, then by opponents of his pension reforms – Macron called on the interior ministry to come up quickly with proposals on improving police ethics.

During a visit to a police training centre on Monday, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner, usually unquestioning in his support of law enforcement, also ventured some rare criticism.

Alluding to an incident caught on camera recently, in which a police officer is seen tripping up a protester, sending her flying to the ground, Castaner chided: "One does not trip up on ethics without lowering oneself and the police."

Aline Dailliere, a researcher and author of several reports on police brutality, described Macron's and Castaner's remarks as "unprecedented" for French leaders.

"Until now the question of police violence was a taboo subjected that the government did not tackle," she said.

Several new cases of alleged abuse have piled pressure on the government to rein in rogue officers.

On January 3, a 42-year-old delivery man died of suffocation after being pinned face down on the ground during an arrest operation in Paris, the latest victim of a controversial tactic which has led to several deaths in recent years.

A week later, a video showed a man falling to the ground after an officer apparently fired rubber bullets at point-blank range into a group of pension protesters.

The video reignited the debate over the growing weaponisation of French law enforcement.

Thomas Legrand, a political commentator on France Inter radio, blamed the string of terror attacks that rocked France in 2015/2016 for convincing the French to accept "small touches of authoritarianism."

The "Robocop-style getup, the excessive weaponry and masks" used by riot police added to the "tense, bellicose atmosphere" of French demonstrations, he noted in a column on January 10, blaming governments of recent years for lurching to the right on security. (AFP)