French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday night described footage showing policemen beating a Black man in Paris as “unacceptable” as he attempted to contain widespread outrage over the incident.
“The images we all saw of the beating of Michel Zecler are unacceptable. They shame us,” Macron said in a statement posted on Facebook and Twitter.
“France is a country of order and freedom, not gratuitous and arbitrary violence,” Macron said.
He called on police to be “exemplary” with citizens and on citizens to be exemplary with the police, but also made sure to avoid criticizing the entire police force.
“I will never accept that the gratuitous violence of a few stain the professionalism of the women and men who, daily, ensure our protection with courage,” Macron said.
“The images that we have all seen of Michel Zecler’s assault are unacceptable. They shame us,” Macron wrote on Twitter on Friday evening.
Les images que nous avons tous vues de l’agression de Michel Zecler sont inacceptables. Elles nous font honte. La France ne doit jamais se résoudre à la violence ou la brutalité, d’où qu’elles viennent. La France ne doit jamais laisser prospérer la haine ou le racisme.— Emmanuel Macron (@EmmanuelMacron) November 27, 2020
Macron’s statement reflected an effort to strike a balance between pushing back against criticism that he has backed increasingly illiberal policies and maintaining good ties with the police and right wing voters who place a premium on law and order.
Macron also reiterated his support for fundamental freedoms such as freedom of expression, freedom of the press and freedom to protest.
Macron also said he had asked the government to make proposals to “reaffirm the ties of trust that should exist naturally between the French and those who protect them and to fight more effectively against all discriminations.”
The video, which was published on social media on Thursday, showed three policemen forcibly entering a music recording studio after seeing a Black man go into the building from the street where he was walking without wearing a mask, which is mandatory under current coronavirus health measures.
The man, Michel Zecler, who owns the recording studio, was unarmed and doesn’t appear to be belligerent toward the policemen in the minutes-long video published by media outlet Loopsider. The three policemen repeatedly punch him, kick him and beat him with their batons. They even fire tear gas into the recording studio at one point.
Zecler says they repeatedly yelled “dirty negro” at him.
Macron met Thursday afternoon with Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, who has taken a hard line on law and order and standing up for the police. The official close to Macron said the president told Darmanin that “it would be good for things to calm down.”
A few hours later, on a primetime nightly newscast, Darmanin offered a clear condemnation of the violence by the policemen. He said they should be expelled from the force if found guilty by the internal police investigation.
Two years ago Macron’s own aide was filmed beating protesters. He wasn’t in the police force he was just given a baton to carry out violence on protesters.
The scandal erupted when Le Monde published a video showing Benalla, a senior member of security staff at the Élysée Palace, in a Paris square where riot police were using tear gas to move on young people during labour day street gatherings on 1 May.
Benalla, wearing a police visor, is seen first grabbing and dragging a woman, then dragging, hitting and stamping on an unarmed young man who appears to be in pain. The riot police close by appears to allow Benalla to carry out the violence.
At the time a witness who saw the incident said: “What I watched was not normal, it was extraordinary. It was not legal and it was not techniques used by the police. It’s unacceptable. I’m extremely angry and I want to see action by the justice system, police and administration against this member of staff of the presidency.”
The beating was the second incident involving French police to spark outrage in recent days.
Monday night, police were filmed using excessive force to removing hundreds of migrants who had set up tents in a central plaza in Paris. At one point, a policeman is seen brutally kicking a migrant.
These two incidents come as the French parliament is voting on a proposed “general security bill,” with a controversial provision that aims to make it illegal to “publish, by any means and in any medium, the face or any other identifying feature” of a police officer or gendarme “with the aim of manifestly causing them physical or psychological harm.”
This part of the proposed law has raised alarm among journalists and activists, who say it could deter legitimate scrutiny of police officers and be abused by law enforcement in determining the intent behind filming or taking pictures.
Darmanin had gone as far as saying journalists would need to seek accreditation with police before being allowed to film protests.
Three rapporteurs on the UN Human Rights Council weighed in on the proposed bill saying as it stands it would “significantly undermine human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
Policemen and their families have complained of being targeted on social media and threatened for doing their job. Police unions also complain of insufficient staffing, too little equipment and unpaid overtime. In 2018-2019 French police had to deal for months with weekly protests by the anti-establishment Yellow Jackets movement, some of which turned violent, followed by strikes related to Macron’s pension reform plans.
Darmanin told French TV channel BFM at the beginning of November that he had “made a promise, that images of policemen and gendarmes, no longer be published on social media. That promise will be kept.”