Thousands march in France to protest against “police brutality”

Tens of thousands of people marched in France Saturday to protest police violence in demonstrations organised by the left, with clashes breaking out on the margins of the Paris rally.

The nationwide protest came just under three months after the point-blank killing by a policeman of a youth outside Paris at a traffic check sparked over a week of rioting in Paris and elsewhere.

In Paris, demonstrators of all ages held up placards proclaiming “Stop state violence”, “Don’t forgive or forget” or “The law kills”, with a statue of justice with its eyes crossed out in red.

The demonstrators were responding to a call by the radical left including the hard-left France Unbowed (LFI).

The demonstrators took particular aim at article 435-1 of the internal security code, introduced in 2017, which extends the possibility for the forces of law and order to shoot in the event of a suspect’s refusal to comply.

Unions said some 80,000 people joined the protests across France, including 15,000 in Paris, but the interior ministry put the number at 31,300 nationwide, with 9,000 in Paris.

‘Unacceptable violence’

The government denounced “unacceptable violence” on the margins of the march in Paris, after were officers trapped in their police vehicle when it was attacked, an AFP correspondent said.

Hundreds of people wearing black and in hoods broke away from the main march of several thousand people in Paris

They smashed the windows of a bank branch and threw objects at a police car stuck in traffic, an AFP reporter said. 

Paris police said that the police car was attacked with a crowbar and only the intervention of an anti-riot police unit allowed the release of the vehicle.

Police said that three officers were slightly injured.

A video later published by the BFMTV channel and shared on the internet showed a group of masked protesters running after the car, repeatedly kicking it, as one man smashes a window with a crowbar.

An officer gets out and brandishes his service weapon, but does not fire it and gets back in the vehicle.

“We see where anti-police hatred leads,” Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin wrote on X, formerly Twitter, denouncing “unacceptable violence” against the police.

Paris police chief Laurent Nunez said three people had been arrested over the incident. 

Another three were arrested elsewhere in France, according to the interior ministry.

‘Injustice destroys families’

Among those marching in the northern city of Lille was 27-year-old Mohamed Leknoun, whose brother Amine was killed in August 2022 after refusing to obey police orders.

“All this injustice destroys families,” he told AFP.

He deplored the fact that he had not been informed of any progress in the investigation since the police officer who fired the fatal shot was indicted.

The march came days after the IGPN, the inspectorate responsible for investigating police misconduct, released its annual report on the use of force by officers.

It showed that in 2022, 38 people died as a result police action, including 22 who were shot dead: 13 of those deaths involved cases of someone refusing to comply with a police order.

Lingering anger over the killing by police of 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk in June was an impetus for Saturday’s protests, but they included groups with disparate demands for immigrants’ rights, affordable housing and economic justice. More than 100 marches were planned around France, and Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin ordered special police vigilance.

Tensions briefly flared at the largely peaceful, boisterous protest in Paris. Members of the crowd smashed windows of a bank along the march route, and police evacuated the rattled employees. At another spot, protesters surrounded a police car and an officer darted out, waving his gun.

Some 30,000 police and gendarmes were working Saturday to keep order for a visit by Pope Francis to Marseille and at three Rugby World Cup matches, according to the interior minister’s office. The security presence was also reinforced for the three-day visit of Britain’s King Charles and Queen Camilla, which wrapped up Friday evening.

The protesters’ demands include tougher rules limiting the use of firearms by police; an independent body to replace the internal agency tasked with investigating police abuses; and massive state investment in low-income neighborhoods.

Marchers lamented what they feel has been a failure to address problems exposed by the killing of Merzouk, a French-born youth of north African descent, in the Paris suburb of Nanterre. He was stopped by two officers who subsequently alleged that he’d been driving dangerously, and died from a shot through his left arm and chest. The officer who fired the shot was given a preliminary charge of voluntary homicide.

Merzouk’s death unleashed violent protests in Nanterre that spread and morphed into nationwide riots. Mass police deployment quelled the mayhem, but tensions linger. 

“The police kill in France. That is not new. But we have the impression that the middle classes and others outside the low-income neighborhoods are gaining awareness of repression by the state,’’ said Belkacem Amirat, who came from the Paris suburb of Antony to march in the capital.

The French government denies systemic racism or brutality by police. Paris police chief Laurent Nunez defended officers, saying Saturday on broadcaster France-Info that they sometimes need to use “legitimate, legal and proportional violence” to stop ‘’dangerous behavior, vandalism and looting.’’

Law student Justine Larnac said “the system of police needs to be fundamentally reformed,” notably to curb police violence during arrests and traffic stops and address racial profiling.

For Saturday’s march in Paris, 1,000 officers were deployed to keep order.

In Marseille, about 5,000 police officers and 1,000 private security officers were in place for the pope’s visit, as well as dozens of surveillance cameras along Francis’ route. President Emmanuel Macron, after meeting with the pope Saturday, shook hands with onlookers and police guarding the venue.

Security measures have also been heightened in the nine cities hosting the Rugby World Cup, running from Sept. 8-Oct. 28.

Organizers of Saturday’s protests include the far-left party France Unbowed and hard-left union CGT, among Macron’s loudest critics. Climate activists, a farmers’ collective and community groups that work to combat racism and police abuse also took part.

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