PARIS — French President Emmanuel Macron is under increasing pressure to address policing and race issues that have been crystallized in a series of protests and counter-protests in recent days.
On Friday, police officers took to the streets of Paris to denounce what they say is a lack of political support, days after thousands marched in the French capital against alleged police brutality and racial discrimination by law enforcement.
Anti-racism and police brutality protests are planned across several cities over the weekend, and Macron will address the nation on Sunday evening but, so far, his office has said only that there’s a possibility he might discuss the issue. The speech is mainly meant to take stock of how the country is doing a month after the coronavirus lockdown was gradually lifted, and to discuss the economic recovery plans.
Macron has so far resisted speaking publicly about the issues that invoke the country’s lighting rod colonial past, preferring instead to allow Interior Minister Christophe Castaner and Prime Minister Edouard Philippe to take the lead.
Unlike other European leaders, he hasn’t commented publicly and directly on the death in the United States of unarmed black man George Floyd in police custody, which ignited a global protest movement and contributed to French protesters’ anger.
“President Macron must ensure that the police are respected.” — Fabien Vanhemelryck, secretary-general of police union Alliance
The country’s anti-police brutality movement also gained renewed traction over the past two weeks after the latest court-ordered medical report in the case of Adama Traoré, a 24-year-old black man who died in police custody in 2016, seemed to exonerate the police in his death.
On Monday, Castaner banned the use of chokeholds during arrests, and said that officers should be suspended for acts of racism, or “verified suspicion” of racism. He nevertheless also asserted security forces are not racist, as did Philippe on Tuesday, who reiterated support for the police and called their work “formidably difficult.”
The ban was more a gesture to calm public discontent over alleged police brutality and racism, than an overhaul of policing, given that police brutality issues in France have mainly been about ethnic profiling, the use of flash-balls against protesters and aggressive physical handling of suspects.
Nonetheless, it drew the ire of police unions, whose members are already reeling from spending more than a year policing weekly protest by the anti-government Yellow Jackets movement, and having to fight to keep state privileges that came under threat from Macron’s (now suspended) pension reform plan.
“President Macron must ensure that the police are respected,” Fabien Vanhemelryck, secretary-general of police union Alliance, said at the end of the protest Friday during which officers raised banners that said “no police, no peace.”
Thursday evening, French media reported that Castaner was considering easing the chokehold ban, to allow it in certain situations, after he met with police unions.
But current tensions also go beyond police brutality, and have sparked a renewed attempt to discuss the taboo issue of racial discrimination in French society toward citizens descended from immigrants from ex-colonies.
When he was running for president in 2017, Macron spoke up about racism and France’s difficult colonial past, going as far as calling colonialism “a crime against humanity,” a statement that provoked a firestorm.
Since taking office, he has been more cautious, though his party, La République en Marche, paid particular attention to diversity when choosing its candidates for elections for the lower chamber of parliament, a place where non-white MPs are rare.
Nevertheless, according to an official in his office, Macron discussed the issue with a handful of journalists on Wednesday in an off-the-record conversation, in which he said that the way French people of African descent are treated is something that France needs to address.
Far-right leader Marine Le Pen waded into the conversation on Friday by visiting a police station and saying Castaner was not the right man for the job.
“Our law enforcement forces have been abandoned by the political hierarchy,” Le Pen said. “It is evident that [Castaner] is not in the right place.”
Ahead of the first round of the presidential election in 2017, a total of 44 percent of members of the security forces intended to vote for Le Pen, according to an IFOP poll — a far higher number than for any other candidate.
There are also growing calls in France, like the U.K., Belgium and the U.S., to take down statues of figures that were involved in the slave trade.
“We have in front of the National Assembly in France a statue of [Jean-Baptiste] Colbert. Colbert who prepared the Black Code [that codified slavery in France],” said Louis-George Tin, the honorary president of the representative council of black associations in France.
Colbert also played a central role in establishing the French state as a strategic planner who ran the industries and the arts as France asserted itself as a great power.
Macron is opposed to taking down such statues because he doesn’t believe erasing history solves any problems, according to the official in his office.