Thousands of people protest as France reeling from police violence

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PARIS: Thousands of people took to the streets of France on Saturday to call on the government to drop a controversial new security law amid controversy escalated by police beatings and racial abuse of a black man that shocked the country.
Protests against the security law – which would restrict the press’s right to broadcast images of police faces have taken place across the country with the central Place de la République in Paris filled to the brim despite the coronavirus pandemic.
President Emmanuel Macron said on Friday evening that images of the beating of black music producer Michel Zecler in Paris last weekend “shame us”. The incident had amplified concerns about alleged systemic racism in the police.

“Police everywhere, justice nowhere”, “police state” and “smile while you are beaten” were among the slogans brandished by the demonstrators in the crowded Place de Paris.

The Parisian authorities had demanded that the organizers limit the gathering to one place, but on Friday evening, the authorities authorized a march from the Place de la République to the nearby Place de la Bastille.

An investigation has been opened against the four police officers involved, but commentators say the images – first published by the Loopsider news site – might never have been made public if the disputed Article 24 of the security legislation had been adopted.

The article would criminalize the publication of images of police officers on duty with the intention of harming their “physical or psychological integrity”. It was adopted by the National Assembly although it is awaiting Senate approval.
Under the section, offenders could be sentenced to up to one year in prison and a fine of 45,000 euros ($ 53,000) for sharing footage of police officers.

The controversy over the law and police violence turns into another crisis for the government as Macron grapples with the pandemic, its economic fallout and a host of problems on the international stage.

A sign that the government could prepare to backtrack, Prime Minister Jean Castex announced on Friday that he would appoint a commission to reformulate article 24.

But he was forced to turn back even on that proposal after parliament speaker Richard Ferrand – a close ally of Macron – accused the prime minister of trying to usurp the role of parliament.

The government says the provision is intended to protect officers from online abuse and has come under intense pressure from police officials.

But media unions say it could give police the green light to prevent journalists – and social media users – from documenting abuses such as those against Zecler.

For critics, this is further proof of the shift to the right of Macron, who came to power in 2017 as a centrist promising liberal reform of France.

“The police violence left Emmanuel Macron facing a political crisis,” said the daily Le Monde.

The issue has also put pressure on Macron’s top Home Secretary Gerald Darmanin – who was promoted to that post this summer despite being targeted by a rape investigation – with Le Monde saying that tensions increased between him and the Elysee.

Images of Zecler’s beating emerged days after police had already come under fire for the forcible relocation of a migrant camp in central Paris.

A series of high-profile cases against police officers for mistreating black and Arab citizens has raised accusations of institutionalized racism. The force insisted that the violations are the fault of isolated individuals.

In a letter seen by AFP, the Parisian police chief Didier Lallement wrote to the police officers to tell them: “In the coming days, the weeks to come… there is no doubt that you will face difficulties, doubts, even anger and fear.

But he insisted he could “count on integrity, a sense of honor and ethics” in strength.

In the western city of Nantes, police said around 3,500 people had gathered, while organizers estimated the crowd at 6,000 to 7,000.

Officials in the southern city of Montpellier said 3,800 people demonstrated on Saturday, more than double the number of people who took part in a march a week ago, while organizers said there were 5,000 people.

“I’m just waiting for the law to be withdrawn,” said Adèle Lequertier, a 22-year-old sociology student who participated in the Montpellier march.

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