Thousands of people turned out in major cities across France on Saturday to protest controversial new security legislation that would ban the publication of images of police officers with intent to cause them harm.
Activists and journalists are concerned the “global security law” will allow police violence to continue unchecked at a time of growing calls for more oversight. Anger has been heightened by videos that showed police using unwarranted force against a Black man and migrants on two separate occasions this past week.
Violence erupted at about 4 p.m. local time on Saturday on the fringes of a march near the Bastille square in Paris and some “construction site” material was set on fire, the city’s police said in a tweet. Protesters dressed in black — a regular fixture in France in recent years — overturned a van on a street leading to the square, while others used steel pedestrian barriers as shields against the police, AFP reported.
President Emmanuel Macron, whose party pushed for the legislation to help protect the police as the government presses on with its promise to improve security and crack down on crime, said the police brutality videos “shame us,” and condemned violence both by and against officers, in comments posted on Facebook and Twitter on Friday evening.
The French leader is coming under pressure on all fronts as he tries to respond to recent Islamist terror acts, which included the beheading of a school teacher last month, and to contain the spread of the coronavirus while repairing an already battered economy. His tack to the right ahead of presidential elections in 2022 is also upsetting some.
In his statement on Friday, Macron asked the government to quickly come up with proposals “to reaffirm the link of confidence that should naturally exist between the French and those who protect them,” and do a better job of fighting discrimination.
The videos that surfaced Thursday show police hitting Black music producer Michel Zecler behind closed doors until he bled, using tear gas and shouting racial slurs. He said in interviews afterward that he had no idea why he was targeted. The officers tried to cover up their actions and may have been successful if it weren’t for the images, according to reports by French media. That beating came after the heavy-handed evacuation on Monday of a makeshift migrant camp in a Parisian square.
The protests that drew “thousands” according to initial estimates by BFM TV come as nonessential stores in France reopened on Saturday after a month of lockdown. Strict measures remain in place with the threat of the virus ongoing. Restaurants are still shut and are set to reopen in January while individuals may only go out for a walk within a 20-kilometer (12.4-mile) radius from their residence and for a maximum of three hours a day. About 6,000 protested in Bordeaux, AFP reported, citing the local prefecture.
France’s government says the goal of the law isn’t to prevent citizens from recording police intervention, and Macron in his Friday statement said he firmly believes in freedom of expression and freedom of the press.
“The values of the Republic aren’t negotiable,” he said. An Ifop poll commissioned by the government found that 58% of respondents backed the controversial measure, Europe 1 reported on Nov. 24.
An editorial published by Le Monde on Friday said the beatings weren’t isolated incidents and demonstrate a serious crisis of leadership. It was criticism of hardline Interior Minister Gerard Darmanin, who this year told lawmakers he considered police violence “legitimate,” adding that he “suffocates” when he hears talk of police excesses. Though he described the incidents this week as “shocking,” it was too little too late, according to the editorial.
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