French police have defied a ban on mass gatherings to protest against what they see as a lack of government support, marching shoulder to shoulder on the Champs-Elysees to condemn new limits on arrest tactics and criticism of racism in their ranks.
France this week announced a ban on chokeholds as part of government efforts to stem police brutality and racism amid global protests over George Floyd’s death in the US, but officers have especially taken issue with any implication of systemic racism among French police.
Interior minister Christophe Castaner said earlier this week that any “strong suspicion” of racism would be punished, in response to investigations into comments on closed Facebook and WhatsApp groups for police.
Friday’s protest was small but highly visible, with horns, flags and blue smoke blowing under rainy skies.
As officers marched close together, with hardly a mask in sight, Paris police issued a bulletin confirming that anti-police protests planned this weekend were banned because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Friday’s group walked unimpeded to the interior ministry, which is next to the presidential palace and has been barricaded against demonstrators since the 2018 yellow vest protests that frequently ended in violent clashes.
Uniformed guards appeared startled at the arrival of the protest but did not intervene. After a minute of silence for dead officers, they sang the French national anthem, spoke briefly and dispersed.
“French police are the most controlled in the world, so when there are certain lapses by a tiny minority, don’t stigmatise all police,” said Fabien Vanhemelryck of the Alliance union.
He accused politicians of responding hastily to a crisis in the US “that has nothing to do with us”.
Sometimes you can't just ask people to follow you to be arrested. Every day, you're dealing with people who are completely insaneJean-Paul Megret
Unions met Mr Castaner on Thursday and Friday to discuss changes to police tactics after the minister announced on Monday that officers would no longer be taught to seize suspects by the neck or push on their necks.
He stopped short of banning another technique — pressing on a prone suspect’s chest — that has also been blamed for leading to asphyxiation and possible death.
Such immobilisation techniques have come under growing criticism since Mr Floyd’s death, but French police say the new restrictions go too far.
“He doesn’t even know what he’s talking about,” said Jean-Paul Megret, another police union leader. “Sometimes you can’t just ask people to follow you to be arrested. Every day, you’re dealing with people who are completely insane.”
Unions floated the idea this week of widening the use of stun guns, which are only available to a handful of specialised officers.
France has seen several anti-police protests sparked by Mr Floyd’s death, and another is planned for Saturday.
Friday’s protest began on the Champs-Elysees avenue, which was repeatedly the scene of violence between police and the “yellow vest” protesters last year.
Last week, the Paris prosecutor’s office opened a preliminary investigation into racist insults and instigating racial hatred based on comments allegedly written in a private police Facebook group.
Website Streetpress published a string of offensive messages that it said were published within the group, but acknowledged it is unclear whether the authors were officers or people pretending to be police. Some of the reported comments mocked young men of colour who have died fleeing police.
Separately, six police officers in the city of Rouen are under internal investigation over racist comments in a private WhatsApp group. Both incidents have prompted public concerns about extreme views among French police.