The footage of Zecler, first released Thursday by the French news outlet Loopsider, shocked a nation that was already debating a controversial provision in a new security law that would ban recording police on active duty. The release of the footage followed an incident Thursday in which a police officer was shown on camera tripping an Afghan refugee as authorities cleared out a migrant camp in central Paris.
President Emmanuel Macron said in a Facebook post Friday that the images of Zecler’s Nov. 21 beating “shame us,” and he urged the government to devise new protocols that would “reaffirm the link of confidence that should naturally exist between the French and those who protect them.”
In an interview with the Associated Press, Zecler said: “I want to understand why I have been assaulted by people who were wearing a police uniform. I want justice, actually, because I believe in the justice of my country.” He said he suffered injuries to his head, legs and forearms.
The exact circumstances of his arrest are not clear, but Zecler said he was not wearing a mask, which is a violation of France’s pandemic rules.
Three of the officers involved have been charged with “intentional violence by a person in public authority,” as well with falsifying statements that documented the incident. The fourth officer has been charged only with “intentional violence.” Two of the four have been granted conditional release.
The incident has also rekindled concerns about systemic racism in the institutions of an officially colorblind country that often struggles to address the phenomenon.
Since the end of World War II — during which French authorities identified Jewish citizens and, thereby, facilitated their deportation to Nazi concentration camps — the French government does not keep statistics on race, ethnicity or religion. France considers itself a “universal” republic in which all citizens are equal in the eyes of the state.
But racial discrimination has been repeatedly documented in the actions of the police force, an institution run by the state. In June, Jacques Toubon, then France’s public defender of civil liberties and a former conservative politician, revealed that police identity checks target young men perceived to be Black or Arab 20 times as frequently as all other people.
“Our thesis, our values, our rules — constitutional, et cetera — they are universalist. They do not recognize difference,” Toubon told The Washington Post at the time. “But there is a tension between this and the reality.”
The May killing of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis resonated deeply in France, where protests over incidents that demonstrators claimed showcased similar police brutality consumed much of the early summer. But rarely has footage of the kind that emerged in the Floyd killing surfaced here.
In the months leading up to Zecler’s beating, Macron’s government — particularly his Interior Ministry, run by the hard-line Gérald Darmanin — has appeared to dismiss concerns about police brutality, regardless of the protests.
“When I hear the words ‘police violence,’ personally, I suffocate,” Darmanin told the National Assembly in July.
In late October, at a town hall meeting with young people to discuss the country’s principle of “laïcité,” or secularism, Sarah El Haïry, France’s state secretary for youth, brushed aside student concerns about police aggression toward people of color in particular.
“You have to love the police, because they’re there to protect us in our daily lives,” Haïry said, according to the magazine La Vie. “They can’t be racist, because they are republican.”
That line was echoed by Justice Minister Éric Dupond-Moretti after Zecler’s beating.
“I’m obviously scandalized by these images,” Dupond-Moretti said, speaking on the LCI television channel. “There are racist police, lawyers or even bakers, but to say the police are racist — it’s not true.”
The international outcry over the incident — coming on the heels of condemnations from press-freedom advocates over the security law’s potential effect on reporters — has angered Macron. “Illiberalism is not our identity!” he reportedly said at a meeting of ministers on Monday, according to the French news outlet Le Figaro.
Amid mounting criticism from the public, the government has signaled a willingness to change Article 24 of the new security bill — the provision that would ban filming police, in theory to protect them from harm.
Prime Minister Jean Castex said Friday that the provision, which is pending approval from the Senate, would be revised.
On Monday, Parliament said it would drop the provision.