Several incidents show that French law enforcement is dealing violently with minorities under the cover of new emergency measures.

Beyond the horror of a coronavirus pandemic, there are plenty of people who are viewing a public health emergency as an opportunity. The opportunism ranges from financial speculators looking to buy up the cheap stock in crumbling markets to those selling black-market medical supplies at a huge profit. 

Police in Paris – which has been in lockdown since March 17 – have reported an increase in burglaries, including ones at pharmacies and supermarkets. Even the Notre Dame Cathedral, which has been a reconstruction site since a devastating fire almost a year ago, was broken into on the first day of the new restrictions. 

Two men were caught trying to steal ancient stones, or any other relics they could get their hands on. They now face criminal charges – not just for theft, but for ignoring strict rules about entering without the correct documentation.

There is no doubt that, as in other countries, the police in France must be praised for trying to maintain order among chaos, and a general feeling of fear. Like thousands of other public servants, they have an incredibly difficult job to do and are undoubtedly putting themselves in extreme danger as they interact with members of the public.

However, there is growing evidence that some officers are focusing on ethnic minorities as they enforce new decrees – sometimes in a manner that can only be described as criminal. Shocking videos have emerged of groups of uniformed officers – they look more like thuggish gangs than organised patrols – physically assaulting people of colour. 

One video was shot in a marketplace in northern Paris within a couple of days of the lockdown announcement. It shows a black teenager immobilised on the ground with armed officers on top of her. There are at least a dozen police involved in the operation, including ones brandishing Heckler & Koch assault rifles. 

Never mind the social distancing and other hygienic measures to avoid the Covid-19 contagion as they surround the girl, her mother screams out that she is only 17, and does not deserve such manhandling. The accusation against her was that she had failed to print or copy out a so-called “attestation” authorising her to go out shopping, and so risked a fine of 135 euros ($146). 

Persistent offenders are already being placed in custody for “endangering lives”, while emergency legislation introduced last Saturday means those caught without passes on three occasions risk six months in prison and a fine of 3750 euros ($4065).

These extraordinarily disproportionate punishments are astonishing given how easy it is to pop outside for a bottle of milk, for example, and to forget to produce a fresh document. Others simply lose them when they are out, or make a mistake with dates. 

If the lockdown goes on for at least six weeks, then that is a minimum of 42 attestations, assuming you only go out once a day. 

Enforcement is already far stricter in poor, socially disadvantaged areas of Paris and its suburbs than it is in the upmarket parts of the capital associated with tourists and the superrich.  

The police roughing up the girl in the Paris market were members of the CRS – the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité [Republican Security Companies] which is primarily a riot control paramilitary organisation.

The company is set up to “protect” France from domestic threats, with the emphasis on using brute force, and it faces frequent accusations of overstepping the mark. Quite why they are being deployed on such a sensitive, health-related operation is not clear, but accusations of racism are mounting. 

The regular Police Nationale are also facing similar complaints. Lockdown videos include one of an 18-year-old black girl pushed on to the floor by officers encircling her in Aubervilliers, just northeast of Paris. A man from an Arab background is entirely peaceful while showing his pass document to a patrol nearby before a member kicks him hard in the groin area. 

Such scenes have echoes of the notorious filmed incident that saw 22-year-old Theo Luhaka horribly abused during a routine “control” by four officers in the greater Paris suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois. 

Luhaka had not committed a crime but allegedly suffered racist insults before the attack in February 2017. Medical evidence revealed that a telescopic police baton had been rammed into his rectum, causing wounding and extreme pain to this day. 

Enquiries are still active, and the officers involved – who deny any wrongdoing – face a trial and 15-year prison sentences if found guilty of “willful violence resulting in permanent disability.” 

Beyond this, the Theo Luhaka case has become a powerful symbol of the way ethnic minorities are treated on the street, day-in, day-out. There are numerous outstanding complaints about police brutality, with a racial element to them. They all relate to those from black and North African backgrounds and the most sinister concern those who have allegedly been shot dead or otherwise killed within custody. 

The “controls” – essentially people being stopped and asked for their identity card – are the usual flashpoints for racist aggression, and the coronavirus pandemic provides even more opportunity for bigoted officers to assert their power. 

Organised, monied professionals will have little trouble keeping their paperwork in order. They also live in large, well-ventilated homes, where self-isolation is not too much of an ordeal. 

Not so for the millions who share cramped, oppressive spaces, often with multiple occupants. This especially applies to young people on council estates, recent immigrants to France, down-and-outs, and other groups who have a traditionally fraught relationship with authorities. 

France is officially a colour-blind republic that does not compile statistics based on ethnic origin, meaning deep-seated bigotry is easily covered up. It is also a country where a candidate for the Rassemblement National (National Rally) – a party steeped in xenophobic hate – was runner up in the last presidential election. 

Yes, the primary aim of the coronavirus lockdown is to keep as many people as possible healthy and to try and get society back to normal, but there are very dangerous implications linked that France cannot ignore. 

Racist police are unavoidable in a country where discrimination is rampant, and this societal sickness will only get worse during a national health emergency.  

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