Pressure is rising on President Emmanuel Macron to purge “institutional” racism and brutal methods from the police as demonstrators rallied in a dozen French cities in tribute to George Floyd.
His death in Minneapolis has intensified anger at the conduct of French police, amid media reports that French officers have posted racist comments on Facebook.
Placards at some rallies on Tuesday night compared Mr Floyd’s fate to the death in French police custody of Adama Traore, a young black man. The Traore case has become emblematic in the fight against French police brutality and racism.
Edouard Philippe, the prime minister, denied campaigners’ accusations of “systemic and institutional racism” in the police. “France, the national police, the gendarmerie, are not racist,” he said. “But every time there is a racist act… it’s important that the whole country reacts.”
However, French media last week published the contents of a private Facebook group in which police officers appeared to use racist and sexist terms, and mock victims of police brutality.
Mr Macron ordered the government to come up with proposals to improve police ethics following a series of mass protests after an official medical report last week cleared police of causing Mr Traore’s death in 2016. They said it did not result from being pinned down by the three officers who arrested him. But a separate medical investigation commissioned by his family concluded that the death of the 24-year-old was caused by the arrest technique.
Government promises to ban the controversial “chokehold” restraint method sometimes used by police, and to introduce a policy of “zero tolerance” to racism in the force have done little to calm anger among minority communities in France.
Noam Anouar, a police officer, criticised the “segregationist mentality” of some of his colleagues.
The French police watchdog, the Inspection Générale de la Police Nationale, said on Monday that complaints against officers rose by nearly a quarter last year when police were deployed for months to control weekly “yellow vest” anti-government protests.
The police won public plaudits after the Paris terror attacks in 2015, but subsequently became objects of hatred over clashes with “yellow vest” protesters.
Christophe Castaner, the interior minister, responded to the reports of racist Facebook posts by acknowledging that some officers had “failed in the republican duty”.
Manuel Valls, a former prime minister, said the police were “not racist”, but racism, antisemitism and violence ran through society and the security forces “unfortunately do not escape these phenomena”.
Mass rallies are banned under social distancing measures, but before the protests on Tuesday night Mr Castaner indicated that they would be tolerated. “Worldwide emotion overrides the rules,” he said.
The centre-right newspaper Le Figaro commented on Wednesday that “the worldwide indignation provoked by the George Floyd murder seems to have disoriented the [French] government”. It criticised protesters in France for drawing an “odious” parallel between French and US police.
Mr Macron himself has yet to comment on the mounting allegations of police racism, magnified by video of apparent police misconduct during street protests.
Jacques Toubon, the state mediator on citizens’ rights, criticised a “war mentality” in the police and gendarmerie.
About 60 per cent of officers are estimated to vote for Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigrant National Rally, according to Left-wing critics of the police.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the far-Left France Unbowed party, said: “There is a movement forming in the country against the horrible contamination of racism, where we wouldn’t want to see it – in an important body, the police.”
Macron has not spoken publicly about police racism, but the government spokeswoman quoted him as telling a cabinet meeting on Wednesday that racism was “a scourge which is a betrayal of republican universalism”. However, he defended the police, saying that “the overwhelming majority [of officers] were not tainted [by racism].”
He described racism as “a disease that affects the whole society”. He urged ministers to be “uncompromising” in tackling it.