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French Police Could Face Assault Charges In Beating That Sparked Protests

Thousands of protestors across France hit the streets Saturday to condemn police brutality and a proposed law that would make it harder to publicize images of on-duty police officers.
Thousands of protestors across France hit the streets Saturday to condemn police brutality and a proposed law that would make it harder to publicize images of on-duty police officers.

Paris's top prosecutor has filed preliminary charges against four police officers allegedly involved in the beating of a Black man earlier this month.

French prosecutor Remy Heitz announced Sunday that he is asking that three of the four police officers remain in custody. A fourth, who arrived after the beating of Michel Zecler, will be conditionally released.

The preliminary charges filed Sunday are the first steps in a larger investigation into the actions of police the night of Zecler's beating. Heitz said an investigating magistrate would now look into the case to decide on formal charges.

Mass protests

The announcement comes after a tumultuous weekend in France, where thousands hit the streets across the country to express anger over police brutality. Protesters were also challenging proposed legislation that would make it harder to film or photograph French police in the line of duty — something activists say will make brutality more common.

More than 133,000 people protested in Paris Saturday, according to The Local France. With thousands more also marching in Lille, Rennes, Strasbourg and other cities.

The majority of protesters were peaceful, but a small group clashed with police, according to Reuters. Some launched fireworks at police, threw stones, smashed shop windows, and set fire to cars.

Ninety-eight officers were reportedly injured in the melee, according to Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin. He called on those responsible to be prosecuted.

Protesters used the Nov. 21 police beating of Zecler, a 41-year-old music producer, as a rallying cause.

That night, as Zecler was entering his music studio, he was allegedly stopped by police for reportedly not wearing a face mask. France's current COVID-19 restrictions require face masks when outside. Surveillance video of the incident showed that as Zecler entered his studio, three officers pushed inside, grabbed him, and proceeded to beat him for several minutes.Zecler says police used racist language while beating him.

The beating stopped only when others in the building arrived to help Zecler. After police went outside, a fourth officer threw a tear-gas canister through the window of the studio. Zecler and others were forced outside, where police awaited to arrest the group.

The officers were unaware of surveillance cameras inside Zecler's studio until the video was released Nov. 26. They were detained following the release of the video.

President Emmanuel Macron has called the images of the beating "unacceptable."

France's security law

Zecler's beating, as well as scenes of police using brute force to clear a migrant camp in Paris, have revived a debate about police brutality against communities of color in France.

Last week, video and pictures were posted to social media showing police breaking up a migrant camp at Place de la République, in the middle of Paris. The images showed police beating people and using tear gas to clear the area.

Critics of police actions argue those incidents would never have been made public if the contentious Article 24 of France's proposed security legislation were made law. Press freedom and civic groups have been at the forefront of the opposition against the proposal.

The law would criminalize the publication of images of on-duty police officers with the intent of harming their "physical or psychological integrity." Violating the law is punishable by up to a year in jail and a $53,000 fine.

The law passed France's lower house of Parliament, but still needs Senate approval. However, support for the bill appears to be wavering,with Prime Minister Jean Castex announcing Friday that he will appoint a commission to redraft Article 24.

Zecler's case

The four officers could face charges of willful assault by people in position of public authority and falsification of public documents, Heitz said Sunday. The Wall Street Journal reports Heitz indicated officers allegedly used false information in the police report summarizing the Zecler incident.

The officers, whose identities have not been released, deny using racist language in reference to Zecler. According to Heitz, they admit hitting Zecler without justification, but say they did so because they were panicked and afraid.

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