PARIS – Four police officers have been charged with beating a black music producer in Paris this month, French authorities said Monday in a case that has shocked the country and forced the government to reckon with persistent allegations of police brutality and racism.
Graphic video posted on social media showed three officers pummeling music producer Michel Zecler, 41, with his fist, feet and a baton on November 21 at the entrance to a sound studio in the 17th arrondissement of Paris, while another threw a tear gas canister through the window. Sir. Zecler said several officers had also used a racial slur against him.
Authorities quickly suspended the officers and launched an investigation. President Emmanuel Macron said in a statement on his Facebook page on Friday that the images of the beating “bring shame on us”, even though his government has come under fire over a security bill that restricts the sharing of images of police officers.
In a sign that the government was trying to mitigate the growing opposition to the bill, the leader of Mr. Macron’s party in the lower house – a former interior minister and a close ally – said Monday that lawmakers would completely rewrite image sharing. provision.
The four officers were put under formal investigation late Sunday and charged with assault, including use of weapons, a French court official said Monday. Some were also accused of using racial insults, the official said.
The official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about a continuing investigation, said the three officers who were accused of beating Mr. Zecler, too, had been accused of falsifying official documents – on suspicion that the officers had lied in their police report of the events – while the officer accused of throwing the tear gas canister had also been accused of damaging private property.
Authorities have not publicly identified officers beyond their age: 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 prosecutor in Paris, said at a press conference on Sunday night that the officers initially said they had tried to stop Mr. Zecler, because he was not wearing a mask, which is mandatory in France due to the coronavirus pandemic, and because he stems from a “strong smell of cannabis.” The officers also said that Zecler had tried to avoid them by entering the studio, that he had pulled the officers in with him, and that he had been violent.
Mr. Heitz said police later found just under 0.5 grams of cannabis – less than 0.02 ounces – in Zecler’s bag, and that security camera footage showed officers had followed Mr. Zecler inside before beating him while Mr. Zecler did not seem violent towards officers.
Sir. Heitz said officers during questioning had admitted that their blows to Mr Zecler “were not justified” but that they had told investigators that they had acted “under the influence of fear” because they had not been able to bring a fight Mr. Zecler under control in the narrow entrance to the recording studio.
However, footage filmed by a neighbor and published last week by Loopsider showed that an officer continued to hit Mr. Zecler on the street, even though he was surrounded by about a dozen other officers. Several young artists who attended a recording session in the studio were also hit by police, according to the video.
Sir. Heitz also said officers who have not been involved in previous incidents denied using a racial slur.
The battle has sparked years of frustration that the French government is not doing much to tackle allegations of police violence, especially against ethnic minorities. Sir. Macron said in his statement on Facebook last week that he had 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.
But the battle has also hit a nerve in recent dissatisfaction with Mr. Macron’s security policy, as critics say, violates civil liberties and protects police from control.
Tens of thousands of people protested around France over the weekend against a security bill that would restrict the sharing of photos of police officers. The bill was passed by the lower house of parliament and is still to be considered by the senate, but the government is facing increasing opposition from civil rights groups, journalists’ associations and left-wing opposition parties.
This pressure has escalated since Mr Zecler’s blow, although it is not clear that the bill – which would criminalize the posting of “the face or any other identifying element” of on-duty police officers if the aim is “physical or mental harm” to them – would have used in the case.
Christophe Castaner, Mr. Macron’s former interior minister and the leader of his majority in the lower house of parliament announced on Monday that lawmakers would rewrite the provision completely, although it was not clear how or in what way.
Frédéric Veaux, the head of the French national police, said in an interview with the Journal du Dimanche on Sunday that he had been “scandalized, like the rest of the police in this country” by the attack and compared the officers who beat Mr. Zecler to “criminals” and promised that the police would be equipped with 15,000 new body cameras by next summer.
But Mr Veaux denied that relations between the police and the French people were “damaged”.
“Police are a reflection of society, it is not on the margins,” he said, adding that there had been a “disinhibition” of violence against security forces in the last few years, especially after the Yellow West protests.
While the demonstrations on Saturday against the security proposal were mostly peaceful, they were marred by violent clashes between police and protesters later in the day.
An independent photographer from Syria, Ameer al-Halbi, was badly injured when he was hit in the face by a police officer wearing a baton, which the head of Reporters Without Borders called “unacceptable”. Gérald Darmanin, the French interior minister, said nearly 100 security forces had also been wounded, including a police officer in riots violently beaten by protesters in Paris.