Social media polices the police in France - as it should

'Terrifying deaths at the hands of the forces of law and order have happened in isolated cells, but also in full public view', writes Nabila Ramdani

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Anybody who thinks that the shocking police violence broadcast across France in recent months is something new needs to study a bit of history.

Images of truncheon-wielding officers cracking heads as teargas inflames the lungs of anybody in the vicinity have been a regular sight across the country for decades.

Equipped with the latest high-tech weapons, and wearing full-face helmets and armour, the state-sponsored assailants often look like sci-fi stormtroopers.

Terrifying deaths at the hands of the forces of law and order have happened in isolated cells, but also in full public view.

Some of the worst atrocities have been carried out by the CRS – the Compagnies républicaines de sécurité. These are the National Police units set up by President Charles de Gaulle after the Second World War to maintain the peace in hugely turbulent times.

The days when they used to drown French-Algerians in the Seine River, or hang them in Paris woods, are – mercifully – a few decades ago, but still in living memory.

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Watch the way they charge into unarmed civilians today or launch rubber bullets at them, and you will see why people are often extremely worried about the prospect of losing their lives.

Such macabre concerns were certainly high in the mind of President Emmanuel Macron in December when he conceded “there are police who are violent” and that “they need to be punished”.

He also touched on racism – something that is frequently cited as the principal motive for much police malpractice – saying: “When you are not white, you are more likely to get checked by the police. You are identified as a problem factor, and that cannot be justified.”

Mr Macron was clearly referring to the attack on Michel Zecler, the black music producer who was beaten up by four officers at his Paris studio in November and by more police after being dragged into the street. Mr Zecler was stopped for not wearing a coronavirus mask, but a routine search got out of control.

Police unions were naturally furious at Macron’s words, with some saying they would give up on basic checks – or contrôles as they are known in France – and even stop arresting people as a form of industrial action.

What was particularly telling about Macron’s views, however, was that he aired them on Brut, the online video platform. Like everybody else trying to have an impact on the modern world, he knew that visual images were crucial.

It is exactly the same with those who post reports of police violence online. They know that the best way to combat it is to expose it. The sickening footage of Michel Zecler being assaulted mainly came from passers-by using their mobile phones.

This is why there is so much public anger at an attempt by the Macron administration to make publicising images of police officers illegal if the pictures might subject them to ‘physical or psychological harm’.

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This loose justification for what amounts to censorship is currently being reviewed, but it may still make the statute books.

If it does, then people will continue to find ways of getting film and photographs circulated. French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin has pledged to clamp down against online whistleblowing, but as we all know, there are multiple anonymous and untraceable platforms – not just overtly malicious sites, but nominally respectable ones, such as Twitter and Facebook.

No, there is not more police violence around – we are just seeing a lot more of it with our own eyes. And – yes – this awareness will continue because not even an increasingly reactionary French government can police the worldwide web with any kind of serious effectiveness.

More commentary from Nabila Ramdani

Why the French ban on photos of police is a dangerous idea

Masks have dramatically changed daily life