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Phone cameras are key for justice on housing estates

Attacks by police on ethnic and religious minority youths are a disturbingly regular occurrence in France, especially on housing estates. They range from day-to-day assaults that are seldom reported, to outrages that for all the right reasons make international news.

The latest triggered days of rioting in the western city of Nantes. The violence followed the fatal shooting of Aboubakar Fofana, a 22-year-old from a Guinean background, around council properties in the district of Breil in early July. A so-far unnamed officer with the CRS, a notoriously pugilistic unit that translates as Republican Security Companies, has been charged with manslaughter. The victim’s family are being supported by civil rights groups in calling for this indictment to be raised to murder.

It is essential that Officer X, as we shall refer to him, gets a fair trial. Despite the circumstances of the incident, he is free on bail and under protection. This is because his picture has been posted online, and he has been threatened with reprisals.

While such a development is reprehensible, it was in fact social media, and indeed the use of unauthorised pictures, that finally opened up the case. Moreover, it exposed a scandalous attempt at a police cover-up.

To begin with, Officer X said he shot Fofana, who was wanted for questioning in connection with a range of criminal allegations including theft and drug-dealing, in the neck as he sat in his car because the suspect was reversing towards other police, and a group of children who were playing in the street.

The claim was that Fofana posed a lethal threat, and needed to be “neutralised”, to use the stark official jargon. No fewer than five of Officer X’s colleagues backed up what turned out to be a pack of lies.

We know this, because unassailable evidence provided by witnesses on the estate – for which read local residents with video cameras on their smart phones – showed something completely different: namely Officer X leaning inside the car window and discharging his service pistol into Fofana’s neck.

During a day’s questioning, Officer X changed his story, saying his gun went off “accidentally”, adding that the ordeal had left him “in a state of shock”. Soon afterwards, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe pledged a detailed investigation would offer “full transparency”.

Which is exactly what has been woefully lacking in the past. The CRS is a paramilitary organisation that was set up towards the end of the Second World War to maintain law and order during an exceptionally turbulent period. 

Major scandals it has been involved in include the drowning and beating to death of up to 300 Algerians taking part in pro-independence demonstrations in central Paris in October 1961. They stood out in black leather coats and distinctive helmets and goggles in those days, but very few pictures were taken.

Technically, nobody is allowed to take photographs or film that shows police on duty in France to this day. The country has strict privacy laws, especially in regards to authority figures. The proliferation of CCTV never took off like it did in the US and Britain, while intruding in other people’s business is generally considered extremely un-French.

However, as we see from the Fofana case the times are changing, and they are changing very rapidly indeed.

There are many moral issues to consider, as well the marked possibility of human rights violations but, as far as justice is concerned, casual surveillance is something that both police and criminals need to get used to.

Nabila Ramdani is an award-winning French-Algerian journalist who specialises in French politics and the Arab world. Her articles feature in the French national press as well as internationally. She is a regular columnist in The Connexion

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