Praised after Charlie Hebdo attack, French police say ‘anti-cop’ hate is back
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After weeks of nearly continuous and often violent protests against contested labour reforms in France, exhausted police officers hit the streets on Wednesday to denounce a wave of “anti-cop hate” they say is sweeping across the country.
Police unions rallied members in Place de la République in Paris starting at 12 noon, and in front of police stations in the rest of France.
They were protesting against rising hostility toward law enforcement personnel and demanding more leeway from authorities to detain “casseurs”, a French term to designate a radical minority that “breaks” public or private property during demonstrations and, according to police, instigates confrontations with security forces.
The place chosen by police in the French capital is significant. Place de la République became a symbolic rallying point after the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks and, in recent months, turned into ground zero for “Nuit Débout” – a protest movement likened to Spain’s Indignados and Occupy Wall Street.
Since March 9, the iconic square has often been the starting point for weekly demonstrations against a bill that students and labour unions have labelled an assault on worker’s rights and that is bitterly defended by the Socialist government – demonstrations that have become increasingly violent as opposing sides dig in their heels.
“There has been a spike in violence in recent weeks,” Grégory Goupil, a representative for the Alliance national police union told FRANCE 24. “Even during today’s demonstration a police car was set on fire, and two colleagues had to be rushed from the scene.”
Amid the ongoing unrest, French prosecutors began filing legal charges against violent protesters.
On Tuesday, a court in the northern city of Lille sentenced a 26-year-old man to spend five months behind bars for injuring a policeman during a demonstration on March 31. The protester threw a metal barrier at the officer during clashes between security forces and a group of protesters.
Over the weekend, an 18-year-old high school student was formally charged with attempted homicide in a case of protester violence that has drawn even wider attention. Prosecutors say the young man was part of a group that surrounded a lone police officer on the sidelines of a protest in the western city of Nantes on May 3.
They knocked the officer down, then attempted to remove his safety helmet and hit him in the skull with a metal rod, according to prosecutors. The policeman suffered a fractured nose and needed 15 stitches. The student, who was getting ready for school exams, had no previous police record.
Police say such incidents are not isolated. At protests they are routinely confronted with rocks, large metal ball bearings and powerful firecrackers being launched at them. Around 300 police officers have been injured during protests in the past two months, according to France’s interior ministry.
Police are not innocent victims of violence but the main perpetrators of escalating hostilities, protesters counter in a debate fuelled by pictures and videos shared on the Internet.
A policeman was caught on video punching a defenceless 15-year-old student on the sidelines of a protest in Paris, provoking widespread indignation at the start of protests against the labour reforms. The video, which did not show how or why the teen was restrained initially, shows two policemen pick him up off the pavement, while a third knocks him back down with a blow to the face.
In late April, a 20-year-old protester lost the use of his left eye after he was clubbed by police in the head in the city of Rennes. Both those incidents sparked investigations by French authorities.
The Twitter account Violences Policières, or Police Violence, has since early April posted almost daily pictures of wounds allegedly inflicted on protesters by police batons and rubber bullets. It includes a few videos of purported journalists being targeted by police for filming those crackdowns.
French NGO the Human Rights League earlier this month called for a parliamentary investigation into cases of police violence, citing “routine abuses” and “disproportionate force” when responding to unruly behavior.
“Our guys are worn out, and sometimes mistakes are made, punches are thrown,” a 25-year-old policeman attending Wednesday’s rally, and who asked for his name to be withheld, told FRANCE 24. “But the videos never show the full story. I wish people would see how we are pushed to the limit.”
Police have responded by releasing their own videos and pictures. One clip caught on camera shows riot police in late April retreating from a barricade in Nantes after a loud and fiery explosion, and police Twitter accounts show pictures of projectiles, including small fuel canisters, hurled at them.
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Police have taken particular offence to a poster by the CGT union that accuses police of violence and of failing their responsibilities. “Police are supposed to protect citizens, not beat them. Stop the violence,” the poster reads, using a bloodied pavement as a background.
“We’re outraged that some groups, some members of the press are singling us out as if we were the thugs, as if we were provoking the violence. We don’t need that,” Alliance’s Goupil said.
The police union representative admitted undercover cops infiltrate protests, but that such practices were in line with their work and were necessary to “gather information” and “identify certain individuals”. “We are not there to provoke violence, that has not been the case as long as I’ve worked,” he insisted.
An opinion poll published in Le Parisien daily newspaper on Wednesday showed that up to 82 percent of French people had a positive image of police, compared to only 65 percent of people before the Charlie Hebdo attacks.
Goupil said that anti-cop hatred by a small but “increasingly visible” segment of French society was only the latest concern for him and fellow officers, confirming reports that forces have been stretched thin after a ramp up in security last year.
“After Charlie Hebdo we have had more sensitive locations to patrol, more individuals to protect and we’re constantly in the field,” he said. “We’re out of breath."
The officer said he was encouraged by a new hiring push, but warned mandatory training meant new recruits would not join police ranks before six months to a full year. Before then, French law enforcement will be called on to provide security during this summer’s European Championship football tournament.
“We know there will be all these venues to secure, thousands of tourists to protect,” Goupil said. “Frankly we’re worried."