French police charged over black man's beating

Stuart WILLIAMS, Jürgen HECKER
·3-min read

Four French police officers were charged Monday over the beating and racial abuse of a black music producer, a case that has outraged France and ramped up pressure on the government to give ground on a controversial security bill.

The assault of Michel Zecler -- exposed in video footage published last week -- has become a new rallying cause for critics who accuse the police of institutionalised racism and brutality.

President Emmanuel Macron summoned cabinet ministers and parliamentary leaders to a crisis meeting Monday to rapidly produce "suggestions to re-establish confidence" between the police and the population, government sources said.

Later Monday, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin is to face questions from a parliamentary commission over the new security law, which would restrict the right of the press -- and of social media users -- to publish images of on-duty police.

Rallies against the law mobilised tens of thousands at the weekend, with dozens wounded during clashes with police in Paris, including a Syrian photographer who has worked for AFP.

- Policemen behind bars -

A Paris investigating magistrate early Monday charged all four officers with assault by a person holding public authority. Three were also charged with fabricating their statement on the incident.

Two of the accused -- including the most senior officer, a police brigadier aged 44 -- will remain behind bars but the other two were freed on conditional release, a judicial source told AFP.

On Sunday, Paris prosecutor Remy Heitz called for three of the officers to be also charged with racial abuse.

He said that the officers had acknowledged that their use of force was unjustified, but that they claimed they had acted in "fear" and "panic," and denied any racist abuse.

The four officers had good prior service records, Heitz added.

Zecler had been stopped for not wearing a mask and because of a strong smell of cannabis. A tiny quantity of the substance was found, he said.

- Macron 'in a trap' -

Commentators said the images of the beating -- first published by the Loopsider news site -- might never have been made public if the contentious Article 24 of the security legislation had been in force.

The bill would criminalise publishing images of on-duty police with the intent of harming their "physical or psychological integrity." It was passed by the National Assembly this month, though it still requires approval from the Senate.

Critics says the legislation is further evidence of a slide to the right by Macron, who came to power in 2017 as a centrist promising a liberal overhaul of France.

Macron said Friday that the images of Zecler's beating "shame us."

The president "is caught in a trap," said the headline in the left-leaning Liberation daily. "The government prefers to let the situation decay rather than withdraw Article 24."

- 'Aleppo came back to me' -

The protests in Paris saw a brasserie set alight, cars torched and stones thrown at security forces, who responded with tear gas and anti-riot tactics.

Among those hurt was an award-winning Syrian photojournalist, Ameer al-Halbi, 24, seen with a bruised face and much of his head covered in bandages in AFP photos.

Al-Halbi is a freelance photographer who has worked for Polka Magazine and AFP.

"We are shocked by the injuries suffered by our colleague Ameer al-Halbi and condemn the unprovoked violence," said Phil Chetwynd, AFP's global news director.

Police have opened an internal investigation into the incident.

Al-Halbi, who was unable to get to hospital for several hours, said the events felt like a throwback to the Syrian civil war.

"I didn't think this kind of thing could happen in Paris, it was a shock," he told AFP in an interview. "I never expected Paris to be a place where I would see blood all over the streets."

In a tweet, Darmanin said 98 police officers had been hurt during the protests, but it was unclear how many protesters were injured.

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