After choking incidents, French minister sparks anger by saying claims of police brutality make him 'choke'

France's controversial new Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin prompted fresh anger on Wednesday by saying accusations of police brutality made him "choke", thereby echoing the words of a man who died January 5 after being pinned to the ground by French police while repeatedly pleading: "I am choking." 

Gérald Darmanin pictured at the National Assembly (lower house) on July 28, 2020.
Gérald Darmanin pictured at the National Assembly (lower house) on July 28, 2020. © Stéphane de Sakutin, AFP

It was a scandal that shook France before the death of George Floyd in May sparked global protests against police brutality and systemic racial inequality. 

Cédric Chouviat, a Frenchman of North African origin, died in hospital two days after a heated exchange with police. Officers pinned Chouviat, who was still wearing his scooter helmet, for about 20 seconds as he was being detained near the Eiffel Tower. The 42-year-old delivery man died of asphyxiation and his larynx was fractured. 

Video of the incident showed him saying, "I'm choking," seven times before his body went limp.

The interior minister's declaration at the National Assembly (lower house) on Wednesday came as he was defending police against allegations of brutality, saying they use "legitimate violence".

"When I hear the term 'police violence', personally I choke," Darmanin told lawmakers.

Darminin used the term "Je m'étouffe", the same verb (étouffer) used by Chouviat as he pleaded with police, which can mean to choke or suffocate but can also be used to express shock.

Darmanin's choice of words has "deeply scandalised and upset" the loved ones of the late Cédric Chouviat, lawyers for his family said in a statement.

"Everyone must consider what these words indicate about the contempt and cynicism the interior minister has for the families left bereaved or wounded by police violence," the lawyers said. 

Three police officers have been charged with manslaughter over Chouviat's death.

Read also: ‘Black and treated as such’: Anti-racism protests expose the myth of a colour-blind France

'No ulterior motive' 

Darmanin's appointment earlier this month despite an ongoing rape investigation against him sparked widespread anger and protests by women's rights groups. Appeals judges in Paris last month ordered a new investigation into claims that Darmanin raped a woman in 2009 after she sought his help to have a criminal record expunged. At the time, Darmanin was a legal affairs adviser.

He took over from Christophe Castaner as France's "top cop" at a time when the country is reeling from demonstrations against alleged police racism and brutality.

A new round of anti-police protests erupted in France in recent months after a report cleared the officers involved in another high-profile police brutality case. Adama Traoré, a 24-year-old black man, died in police custody in 2016 after allegedly also being pinned to the ground.

A report released by Human Rights Watch last month said that French police have "overly broad" discretion when it comes to conducting what it called "discriminatory and abusive checks on black and Arab boys and men”.

A member of Darmanin's team told AFP the minister had simply employed "a commonly used French expression, understood by all" and that there had been "no ulterior motive" in his choice of words.

Government spokesman Gabriel Attal said the minister's choice of words was "clearly not linked" to Chouviat's death and said the country should not get bogged down in "semantic battles". 

But some derided the lack of sensitivity shown by Darmanin, even if unintentional. 

Greens politician David Corman accused the minister of seeking to divert attention from his own legal troubles while Senator Laurence Rossignol tweeted simply, "#WordsKill".

"Those who have suffocated from police violence are unfortunately no longer here to talk about it," tweeted leftist European Parliament MP Manon Aubry, adding: "A terrible choice of words for a terribly guilty denial."

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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