French Police Charged over Beating as Macron Seeks Crisis Exit
Four French police officers were charged on Monday over the beating and racial abuse of a black music producer, as President Emmanuel Macron scrambled to contain the political fallout from a case that has sparked outrage.
The attack on Michel Zecler, which was caught on camera, has become a rallying cause for those who accuse the police of institutionalized racism and brutality.
It has also ramped up pressure on the government to scrap or revise a bill that would restrict the filming of police -- thousands demonstrated against the proposals at the weekend, some rallies turning violent and leaving dozens injured.
Lawmakers from Macron's ruling LREM party said on Monday they would propose a "complete rewrite" of part of the draft law.
Christophe Castaner, LREM's parliamentary chief, denied the president had backtracked, saying the rewrite aimed to balance the need to protect the police with "the basic right to freedom of information".
- 'Restore confidence' -
Macron earlier held a crisis meeting with cabinet ministers and parliamentary leaders to come up with "suggestions to restore confidence" between the police and the population, government sources said.
Castaner acknowledged the "deepening incomprehension" over the draft law, which aims to restrict the right to publish images of on-duty police.
Interior Minister Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin denied that there had been "a divorce" between the police and population.
"The link was never lost, but we must help people understand the difficulties that police face, and also to understand how the population wants legitimate force to be exercised," he told a parliamentary committee.
One committee member had suggested earlier that a rewrite of the offending article would not be enough to restore confidence.
"I am therefore in favor of deleting Article 24," Pierre Person, an LREM deputy, told Le Parisien newspaper.
- Police denials -
Activists say the images of the beating -- first published by the Loopsider news site -- might never have been made public if Article 24 had already been in force.
The bill would criminalize publishing images of the police with the intent of harming their "physical or psychological integrity". It was passed by the lower house National Assembly this month, though it still requires approval from the Senate.
A Paris investigating magistrate early Monday charged all four officers involved with assault. Three were also charged with fabricating their statement on the incident.
Two of the accused will remain behind bars but the other two were granted conditional release, a judicial source told AFP.
On Sunday, Paris prosecutor Remy Heitz called for three of the officers to also be charged with racial abuse.
He said that the officers had acknowledged that their use of force was unjustified, but that they claimed they had acted in "fear" and "panic" and denied any racist abuse.
- 'Blood all over the streets' -
Zecler had been stopped for not wearing a mask. The police also claimed he smelled strongly of cannabis but only a tiny amount of the substance was later found in a bag, the prosecutor said.
Critics says the new security legislation is further evidence of a slide to the right by Macron, who came to power in 2017 as a centrist promising a liberal overhaul of France.
Macron said on Friday that the images of Zecler's beating "shame us".
The protests in Paris saw a brasserie set alight, cars torched and stones thrown at security forces, who responded with tear gas and anti-riot tactics.
Among those hurt was an award-winning Syrian photojournalist, Ameer al-Halbi, 24, seen with a bruised face and much of his head covered in bandages in AFP photos.
Al-Halbi is a freelance photographer who has worked for Polka Magazine and AFP.
"We are shocked by the injuries suffered by our colleague Ameer al-Halbi and condemn the unprovoked violence," said Phil Chetwynd, AFP's global news director.
Al-Halbi, who was unable to get to hospital for several hours, said the events felt like a throwback to the Syrian civil war.
"I never expected Paris to be a place where I would see blood all over the streets," he told AFP.
Paris prosecutors told AFP on Monday that a formal investigation would be launched into how Al-Halbi sustained his injuries, which are consistent with a baton charge.
The probe will be handled by police oversight body IGPN, they said.