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4 Officers in France Are Charged Over Beating of a Black Music Producer

PARIS — French lawmakers will completely rewrite a legislative provision restricting the sharing of images of police officers that was pushed by the government but has faced fierce opposition over the past week, a top official in President Emmanuel Macron’s party announced on Monday, in an effort to defuse a mounting crisis over the measure.

The provision — Article 24 of a contentious new security bill under review by the French Parliament — had come under fire from journalist unions, free speech advocates and left-wing opposition parties. It is not yet clear what will replace the provision.

But Christophe Castaner, the head of Mr. Macron’s party in the lower house of Parliament, La République en Marche, said on Monday that lawmakers would come up with a “completely new writing” of the article, the clearest sign so far that the president wants to defuse perceptions that France is on an increasingly repressive drift.

“France mustn’t be the country of any violence nor any infringement upon any freedom whatsoever,” Mr. Castaner said at a news conference at the National Assembly, the lower house of Parliament, after Mr. Macron met with several ministers and party leaders to discuss the growing crisis.

Under the current version of the bill, Article 24 prescribes a penalty of a year in prison and a fine of some $54,000 for anyone who broadcasts “the face or any other identifying element” of police officers in action if the goal is to “physically or mentally harm” them.

Mr. Castaner acknowledged that there were “doubts” and “misunderstandings” around the provision, which aims to protect officers from online calls to violence but was denounced by critics as an infringement on the right to document police brutality. But he stressed that it was not being scrapped or suspended.

Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of cities across France over the weekend to protest the provision, which arrived in Parliament amid simmering tensions over Mr. Macron’s security agenda in the wake of a string of Islamist terrorist attacks. And opposition to Article 24 was fueled last week after a national outcry over the beating of a Black music producer by Paris police officers that was caught on security camera footage.

A still image from security camera footage showing Michel Zecler being beaten up by police officers. The video’s release on social media prompted an outcry in France.Credit…Michel Zecler/Gs Group, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

While the demonstrations were mostly peaceful, there were some violent clashes between the police and demonstrators.

An independent photographer from Syria, Ameer al-Halbi, was badly hurt in Paris when he was hit in the face by a police officer wielding a baton. Gérald Darmanin, the French interior minister, said nearly 100 security forces had also been wounded, including one police officer in riot gear who was beaten by demonstrators in Paris.

Details on who exactly would rewrite Article 24 and what a new version might contain were scarce. The bill that includes the provision, which would also authorize the use of drones to film citizens in public and allow footage from body cameras worn by police to be live-streamed to authorities, was passed by the National Assembly last week and will be examined by the French Senate in January.

Mr. Castaner’s announcement did little to immediately mollify Mr. Macron’s political opponents. Parties on the left, and even some of Mr. Macron’s own party members, said the provision should be scrapped entirely. Politicians on the right — who control the Senate and are much more amenable to Mr. Macron’s security policies — expressed irritation that they were being bypassed.

“French society has never been so divided, and Article 24 is contributing to that,” Pierre Person, a lawmaker for La République en Marche and the former No. 2 in the party, told Le Parisien on Monday.

Mr. Person said it was a “reality” that police officers were sometimes maliciously targeted. But because Article 24 was “badly written,” he said, it “offers a bad response to the problem, divides, and creates suspicion.”

Journalists and free speech advocates were among the first to oppose the article, fearing it would prevent reporters and citizens from documenting cases of police brutality.

But opposition to the measure gained even wider traction after the beating of Michel Zecler, a 41-year-old Black music producer, in a case that has shocked the country and forced the government to reckon with persistent accusations of police brutality and racism.

Graphic video posted by Loopsider, a digital news outlet, showed three officers pummeling Mr. Zecler with fists, feet and a baton on Nov. 21 in the entrance to a recording studio in Paris, while another threw a tear-gas canister through the window. Mr. Zecler said that several officers had also used a racial slur against him.

President Emmanuel Macron said in a statement on his Facebook page on Friday that the images of the beating “shame us” and he asked the government to come up with proposals to restore public confidence in the police — a demand he has already made twice this year, first in January when a deliveryman died after police officers pinned him to the ground and put him in a chokehold, then again in June amid the global fallout over George Floyd’s killing.

The four police officers involved in the beating of Mr. Zecler, who have been suspended, were placed under formal investigation late Sunday and charged with assault, including the use of a weapon, a French judicial official said on Monday. Some were also charged with the use of racial insults, the official said.

The official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about a continuing investigation, said the three officers accused of beating Mr. Zecler had also been charged with forgery of official documents — over suspicions that the officers had lied in their police report about the events — while the officer accused of throwing the tear-gas canister had also been charged with damaging private property.

The authorities have not publicly identified the officers beyond their ages: 44, 35, 31 and 23. Two of them have been detained, while the others, including the one accused of throwing the tear-gas canister, were released under judicial control.

Rémy Heitz, the Paris prosecutor, said Sunday that the officers had admitted under questioning that their blows against Mr. Zecler “were not justified.”

But they told investigators that they had been acting “under the influence of fear,” Mr. Heitz said, because they had been unable to bring a struggling Mr. Zecler under control in the cramped entrance to the recording studio after trying to stop him for failing to wear a mask, which is mandatory in France because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Mr. Heitz also said the officers, who have not been involved in previous incidents, denied using a racial slur.

Mr. Darmanin, the French interior minister, said Monday that it was unfair to depict the entire police institution as violent because of the actions of a few.

But he acknowledged that there “might be” longstanding “structural problems” in France’s security forces, like insufficient training for new recruits and a lack of proper resources and equipment, that contribute to issues like police violence.

“One can ask the question of why there are men and women who, in a totally disproportionate and unspeakable way, carry out acts that sicken and shame all of us,” Mr. Darmanin told a parliamentary hearing.

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