French Police Face Scrutiny for Heavy Hand During Pension Protests

“I would gladly have broken your legs.”

That’s what a French police officer told Souleyman Adoum Souleyman, a Chadian student who had just been arrested during a nighttime protest in Paris last month against the government’s unpopular pension overhaul. A minute later, another officer ordered Mr. Souleyman, the only Black person among the people rounded up, to “wipe that smile off your face” before slapping him.

Mr. Souleyman was eventually released without any charges. But the officers’ threats and humiliations were recorded in an audio clip that has reignited a fierce debate about police brutality in France.

The audio recording — which was revealed by French news outlets a few days after the arrest, and which The New York Times obtained and authenticated — has struck a chord in France after a recent history of rough and sometimes discriminatory police tactics.

It has also highlighted what lawyers for those arrested and some judges see as a broader trend of abusive arrests aimed at deterring the demonstrators, who have taken to the streets for weeks against the overhaul of the pension system, which raised the legal age of retirement to 64 from 62.

Images of armor-clad police charging into crowds, swinging clubs or randomly arresting people in the street, have drawn condemnation from both the United Nations and the European Union’s human rights watchdog.

Olivier Fillieule, a sociologist studying law enforcement, said the French police had used more intimidating tactics with protesters since the pension law was passed, in an attempt “to scare them, discourage them from coming.”

“Why did they arrest me? Why did they treat me like that?” Mr. Souleyman, 23, who migrated to France in 2019 and has a residence permit, said in an interview. He has said he was not taking part in the protest but only trying to leave the area. “I feel assaulted, abused, humiliated.”

The issue of heavy-handed police tactics has surfaced repeatedly during various France’s various protest movements, especially since the Yellow Vest uprisings of 2018 and 2019, when several protesters lost eyes after being shot with rubber balls by officers. A year later, the country was caught in a political storm over charges of systemic discriminatory police violence, prompting large demonstrations.

The protests against the pension overhaul were largely peaceful in this year’s early months. But since the government rammed through its pension bill without a full parliamentary vote in mid-March, they have at times grown violent.

The resulting crackdown has been criticized by human rights groups and security experts alike as disproportionate and arbitrary.

Lawmakers from the hard-left France Unbowed party, the leader of the left-wing opposition in the National Assembly, the more powerful house of Parliament, have been busy trying to hold the government to account. They peppered ministers with questions, monitored police activity during protests and promoted a petition to dissolve a unit accused of violence.

The pressure has been such that last week Gérald Darmanin, the French interior minister, was called in to answer for the police tactics before Parliament. He dismissed criticism and blamed “ultraleft” militants who allegedly infiltrated the protests to wreak havoc. Since mid-March, some 2,500 fires have been lit by protesters and nearly 300 public buildings vandalized, he said.

“There is no police violence,” Mr. Darmanin recently told the French radio station RTL, pointing instead to officers’ right “to use force to protect people and property.”

The officers heard speaking in the recording belong to a special motorcycle unit, the Motorized Brigades for the Repression of Violent Action, commonly known by its French acronym, BRAV-M, that has a long record of heavy-handed methods.

BRAV-M units — which consist of officers riding in pairs, with an operator jumping off the motorcycle to chase suspects — were created in 2019 to help contain the Yellow Vests, a movement against a fuel tax increase that eventually grew violent.

But they have been regularly accused of arbitrarily beating people, drawing comparisons with “Les Voltigeurs,” a motorcycle riot squad that was disbanded in 1986 after three of its members beat a French-Algerian student to death.

BRAV-M units have been especially busy in recent weeks chasing young people in so-called “wild protests,” nightly marches marked by heavy vandalism that have spread in Paris as the government refused to back down on the pension overhaul.

It was in the midst of one such protest that Mr. Souleyman and six other young people were arrested in an upscale neighborhood of central Paris, on March 20.

Videos and photos obtained by The Times show pairs of BRAV-M members swooping in on the youth in a dimly lit street. The group was then seated on a sidewalk, surrounded by some 15 police officers whose faces were mostly covered by helmets and balaclavas. They flashed bright lights at residents peeking through windows to prevent them from filming.

Other people who were arrested with Mr. Souleyman acknowledged joining the protest but said they were not involved in vandalism.

Février Hendly, a local resident who filmed the arrest from his apartment window, said the youths were calmly walking through the neighborhood just before being apprehended.

Still, the police officers were aggressive from the start, said Salomé Rio, a 22-year-old social science student who was among those arrested. Ms. Rio said she was insulted and slammed against a wall after officers handcuffed her, a scene confirmed by a waiter from a nearby restaurant who witnessed it.

“Your life is hanging by a thread,” Ms. Rio said she was told.

Ms. Rio and three of those arrested said the officers bullied them, mocking their appearance and warning them they would soon face trial. “It was completely arbitrary,” said Miguel Garcia, 21, who recorded the remarks in a 23-minute audio clip.

The recording reveals that the BRAV-M members especially targeted Mr. Souleyman. Officers told him that he would soon be deported and physically threatened him.

“I can tell you that we’ve broken elbows and faces,” an officer is heard saying. “Next time we come, you won’t get in the bus to go to the police station. You’ll get in another thing called an ambulance to go to the hospital.”

Laurent Nuñez, the head of the Paris police, said he was “very shocked” by what he called “unacceptable” comments. An administrative inquiry and a judicial investigation have been opened into the incident.

The police officers involved in the incident attributed their behavior to “physical and moral fatigue” caused by long shifts, according to internal police reports obtained by Agence France-Presse.

Mr. Nuñez rejected calls to disband BRAV-M units, as requested by an online petition that gathered more than 260,000 signatures, saying that they were fulfilling an essential mission to control protests that have grown increasingly menacing.

The French authorities said that more than 1,000 police officers and firefighters have been injured since mid-March. The presence of protesters hurling rocks and glass bottles at the police has increased during recent protests.

Mr. Fillieule, the sociologist, said the French police relied heavily on force and intimidation to handle protests, rather than trying to defuse situations. He said new law enforcement tactics enacted in 2021 have “set in stone the strategies of brutalization tested during the Yellow Vests movement.”

As the protests against the pension law have grown more violent, Mr. Fillieule said, the French police had been given orders to be more intimidating with protesters. “The order is to force people to go home,” he said.

Part of the new strategy is to conduct what lawyers say are preventive and arbitrary arrests — detaining protesters on vague suspicions of violence before releasing them without charge.

This is what happened to the youths arrested on March 20, who were set free after spending the night in a police station.

Mr. Darmanin, the interior minister, told lawmakers last week that nearly 1,200 people had been arrested during the protests since mid-March. But he acknowledged that only 16 percent of them have faced prosecution.

“It’s a bit of an acknowledgment of the emptiness of the accusations against these people,” said Aïhona Pascual, one of a group of lawyers that filed a hundred complaints to denounce arbitrary arrests.

Mr. Nuñez, the head of the Paris police, denied last week that the police were conducting arbitrary arrests. “It’s not true,” he told the France 2 television channel, adding that those arrested were “groups of individuals that form with the intention of committing violence or damage.”

Both Mr. Souleyman and Ms. Rio filed complaints against the officers who arrested them, on charges of violation of the right to personal freedom, insults and violence.

Ms. Rio said she now feels fear when attending large demonstrations. “The goal is to psychologically break the demonstrators,” she said.

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