Residents accuse authorities of heavy-handed implementation of lockdowns in impoverished areas populated with Arab and black residents, including the use of gas grenades, beatings, and rubber bullets.
Minorities in France are complaining that they are being singled out for brutal treatment by French police enforcing coronavirus-related lockdowns.
In recent days, images and videos have emerged of French police officers beating those they accuse of violating lockdown orders and threatening to fire a teargas grenade at a journalist covering unrest in a suburb of Paris.
In one incident a motorcyclist of Arab origin was seriously injured and needed emergency treatment when an unmarked police car opened its door causing a collision.
France is one of the countries hardest hit by the coronavirus, with more than 158,000 confirmed cases and at least 20,796 deaths at the time of publication on April 22.
Many media outlets have framed ongoing riots as expressions of anger against the lockdown but residents say they are angry at the way it is being enforced in France.
Police in France have a long history of brutality, most notably on show in the recent Yellow Vest protests against economic austerity and high taxes.
More than 8,400 Yellow Vest protesters were arrested and 2,000 injured, many with serious wounds. They include five people who had their hands blown off by police officers and 23 who were blinded.
Minorities, particularly members of the Arab and black communities, face a greater risk of state violence.
Deaths, such as that of 24-year-old Adama Traore in police custody on his birthday, highlighted the reasons why so many in French minority communities fear police forces.
A history of violence
For many experts and activists, it is a mistake to see modern-day French policing in isolation. Instead, they trace contemporary policing in France to its historic precedents in both Vichy France and later colonial regimes in North Africa, particularly Algeria.
In a 2017 piece published by Al Jazeera, one French Algerian who was interviewed compared his treatment to grandfather’s treatment by French imperialists before their defeat by the Algerian resistance.
Beatings, the use of stress positions, and public humiliation, are tactics Arab residents say are used today and were also used during the Algerian War of Independence.
“Since the 1940s, the "National Police" has grown to become a racist institution that claims to serve the French Republic on one hand but provides a long track record of brutality against non white minorities in France on the other,” the Paris-based anti-racism and civil liberties activist Yasser Louati told TRT World.
Louati gave historic examples, such as the role of the French police in the deportation of Jews during the holocaust, the Paris massacre of Algerian protesters in 1961, and killings by colonial authorities in the French West Indies in 1967.
Today’s police behaviour is a continuation of this tradition, according to Louati.
“Even before the coronavirus lockdown, the police were already perceived as a force of occupation. In some places, the only interaction with the state was through its police patrols and racial profiling,” he added, further alleging that the lockdown had given many police officers carte blanche when it came to their treatment of minorities.
“As the country entered confinement, things became even worse as many police officers felt the lockdown gave them a pass to beat down blacks and Arabs as the country was busy dealing with the thousands of deaths.”
What the Yellow Vests experienced from late 2018 onwards, was a philosophy first tested on minorities, Louati said.
While international condemnation of French police behaviour is muted, the Yellow Vest experience helped bring the issue global focus.
In May 2019, the UN human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, called for a probe investigating allegations of brutality against the protesters.
"We encourage France to rethink its law enforcement policies and encourage the French authorities to establish avenues for dialogue to reduce tension and to recognize the important and legitimate role that social movements play in governance,” UN experts said in an earlier February 2019 statement.