France launches consultation on measures to improve confidence in the police

The French government is launching a public consultation exercise on Monday aimed at developing ways to increase public confidence in the police following repeated scandals of racism and brutality.

The initiative was proposed by President Emmanuel Macron in December to spread criticism of French security forces who are regularly accused of discrimination and use excessive force.

In November, video of the Paris police beating and beating a black music producer in his studio shocked the country and drew a rare reprimand from Macron’s government.

The incident came days after the brutal cleansing of a migrant camp in the center of the capital and months after hundreds of thousands took part in large-scale protests against police racism and brutality.

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During months of government demonstrations by so-called “yellow vests” protesters 2018-19, about 20 lost an eye and dozens were seriously injured by police rubber bullets and stun grenades.

“We must act urgently,” Macron wrote on December 8, announcing the consultation to “consolidate” the link between the police and the French people, which is expected to last until May.

“I want to move forward quickly and concretely to improve working conditions for the noble and essential job of keeping the peace,” he added. “France is connected through its police and gendarmes.”

Balance sheet

Setting up the idea as both a listening exercise and a way to improve working conditions for officers is a sign of the sensitive balancing act that the head of state is facing.

Despite widespread demands for better public relations, Macron is aware that officers are at the forefront of often violent street protests, as well as counter-terrorism operations.

He angered police unions when he acknowledged in December that identity checks carried out by security forces were disproportionately directed at ethnic minorities – a common complaint from residents in areas of high immigration, which has been confirmed by many studies.

France saw its biggest protests against racism in decades in the wake of the George Floyd assassination in the United States. © Gonzalo Fuentes, Reuters

“When you have a skin color that is not white, you are stopped much more. You are identified as a problem factor. And that can not be justified,” he told the Brut video website.

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Yves Lefebvre, a trade union leader, wrote to him afterwards to complain, saying that the fault lay in “decades of urbanization policies that have piled up immigrant populations in the same areas”.

The consultations will see police union leaders, former officers and local mayors invited to express their views in a process overseen by the harsh interior minister Gérald Darminin.

Darmanin is also set to tour the country to meet with local officers, but it is still unclear how much civil society groups and academics will be asked to contribute.

Controversial security law

The conclusions will inform about a new draft security law that will be presented to Parliament before France holds a presidential election in the first half of 2022.

An earlier draft sparked protests in November and December over a clause that would have criminalized the publication of images identifying officers on duty.

Long-term proposals to improve confidence in French security forces include more local policing with a focus on problem solving rather than just repression and a truly independent police process.

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Critics have dismissed the latest consultations as a PR exercise.

Interior Minister Darmanin made his views on police brutality clear in July last year in the wake of the assassination in the United States of George Floyd, a black man who was strangled to death while under arrest.

“When I hear the words police violence, it personally makes me choke,” Darmanin said at a parliamentary hearing.

The start of the public consultation comes just days after six NGOs launched a class action lawsuit to pressure the French government to address systemic discrimination against police officers who carry out identity checks.

The organizations, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, served on Prime Minister Jean Castex and Darmanin with a formal legal notice demanding concrete measures to ensure that police stop targeting blacks and people of Arab descent in their ID checks.

The main lawyer in the case, Antoine Lyon-Caen, said that the legal action is not aimed at individual police officers but “the system itself, which through its rules, habits, culture, generates a discriminatory practice”.

( Jowharwith AFP)