‘I’m suffocating’: French police investigated over death of delivery driver

French investigators have questioned four police officers over the January arrest of a Paris delivery driver who died from asphyxia after they pinned him to the ground as he repeatedly shouted "I'm suffocating", sources said Monday.

French police tactics, including the use of "chokehold" restraining techniques, have come under growing criticism.
French police tactics, including the use of "chokehold" restraining techniques, have come under growing criticism. © Benoit Tessier, REUTERS

France has been shaken by a wave of demonstrations in recent weeks against brutality and racism by the police, a controversy that has gained resonance since protests erupted in the United States over the killing by police of George Floyd.

Cedric Chouviat, 42, had been stopped by police close to the Eiffel Tower in Paris on January 3 for a seemingly banal traffic control that quickly got out of hand.

In video footage collected by investigators, he can be heard saying "I'm suffocating" seven times in 22 seconds as police hold him down, according to a report on the incident written in April and revealed this week by newspaper Le Monde and website Mediapart.

Video footage appears to show Chouviat with the weight of the police on his torso. According to two witnesses, the delivery driver was held in a chokehold, a controversial restraining technique that has been blamed for past deaths.

"Apart from the arrest, we did not notice any flagrantly violent words or noises," said an expert who analysed footage of the incident. 

>> As George Floyd outrage spreads, France confronts its own demons

'Involuntary homicide'

"The exchange is relatively civil, even if we can sense a form of 'provocation' or 'defiance' in [Chouviat's] words," the expert added.

According to analysis of the footage, Chouviat calls the policemen 'clowns' and one of them a 'loser' and tells them several times not to touch him. 

"At 11 minutes 16 seconds [Chouviat] tells the policeman that he's a 'fool'. The officer decides to arrest him," said the expert.

"In the next 22 seconds we can hear different sounds we cannot identify. The arrested person says several times 'I'm suffocating'. And we can hear one of the policemen say 'All good, all good, cuffs on.'"

Chouviat, a father of five, died in hospital from asphyxia two days after the arrest, with "a fracture to the larynx", according to elements of the autopsy released by Paris prosecutors.

Prosecutors have opened a case for "involuntary homicide". 

None of the policemen involved has been suspended, and their lawyer Thibault de Montbrial declined to comment.

Police revolt

The police watchdog in charge of the investigation has transferred its findings to investigating magistrates who will now decide whether the four officers will be charged.

Chouviat's family has condemned what they term an act of unjustified police violence caused by what they said were "dangerous" restraint techniques and on Tuesday demanded answers about his death from President Emmanuel Macron.

"He was shouting out, 'I can't breathe, I can't breathe, I can't breathe'," Christian Chouviat told reporters about his son at a news conference organised by the family.

"I am addressing myself directly to President Macron," added Chouviat's daughter Sofia. "We want answers."

Chouviat’s last words echoed Floyd's dying plea, which has rallied protesters across the world. The same plea was made by 24-year-old Adama Traoré, who died while in police custody in July 2016 after he was similarly pinned to the ground with the combined body weight of three arresting officers, according to the testimony of one of them.

Spurred into action by the recent demonstrations against police brutality, which young black and Arab men say is often directed at them, the French government this month announced it would ban the controversial chokehold technique. 

>> France vows ‘zero tolerance’ of police racism after wave of protests

But a few days later, the government backtracked after a backlash by police unions, who demonstrated across France, throwing their handcuffs on the ground in protest.

In the days following Chouviat's death, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner promised sanctions against officers "if wrongdoings are established".

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning

Take international news everywhere with you! Download the France 24 app