French police have come under severe criticism for the violent dismantling of a makeshift migrant camp on the symbolic Place de la République, less than 24 hours before the National Assembly voted on the first draft of a controversial “law on global security”.
Police clashed with migrants and the NGOs who support them on Monday evening, shortly after 450 mostly Afghan migrants pitched tents at the base of the statue representing the French republic.
The migrants had left a larger encampment in Saint-Denis, north of Paris, when it was dismantled on November 17th. Pro-migrant groups say the authorities must stop raiding camps, confiscating tents and chasing inhabitants away, only to see them regroup elsewhere.
Mobile phone videos showed police hitting protesters with billy clubs and ramming them with riot shields, kicking migrants and pursuing them in the streets. Police tore tents from the hands of migrants. The tents were thrown into the back of lorries which were driven away.
The two groups faced off at close range, with migrants and their supporters chanting “Get out. Calm down” at police. The situation degenerated into a melee with both sides shoving and pushing. In one video, a fleeing migrant is tripped by a policeman and falls to the ground.
In a tweet just before midnight on Monday, the hard-line interior minister Gérald Darmanin acknowledged the scenes were “shocking”. Mr Darmanin asked the inspectorate general of national police, the IGPN, for a full report within 48 hours.
The prefecture of the Paris region issued a statement saying the formation of such camps is “not acceptable” and urging migrants to apply for lodging intended for them. There are already 3,000 people housed in gymnasiums in and around Paris, and placement services are saturated.
Anne Hidalgo, the Socialist mayor of Paris who is believed to hold presidential ambitions, held a press conference to denounce the “profoundly shocking” behaviour of police and their “disproportionate and brutal use of force”. She said the government had shown incompetence and irresponsibility in dismantling the Saint-Denis camp without preparing an alternative solution for the migrants.
Commentators linked the images of police violence to the law on “global security” which was voted on in the National Assembly late on Tuesday.
The controversial article 24 of the law seeks to ban the “ill-intentioned” publication of photographs or videos of police, in an effort to protect their identity and prevent revenge attacks.
“These images serve a purpose,” said the far left-wing deputy Clémentine Autain, implying that without mobile phone videos, Monday night’s police violence would have gone unnoticed.
Mr Darmanin, aged 38, models himself after his former boss, Nicolas Sarkozy. He is popular with security forces and is seen to embody the rightward drift of President Emmanuel Macron’s administration.
Article 24 was the fulfilment of Mr Darmanin’s promise to police unions to prevent their images being posted on social media. Facing an outcry over the “liberticide” provision, prime minister Jean Castex added several conditions. Images may be banned only when they threaten “the physical or psychological integrity” of security forces. The law cannot infringe on the “right to inform” and “ill intentions” must be “obvious”.
The prime minister promised to submit article 24 to the constitutional council for approval. The law passed with 388 votes for, 104 against and 66 abstentions. It will be debated in the senate in January.
Mr Darmanin provoked widespread protests by journalists and civil rights groups for suggesting that journalists should seek permission from the authorities to cover demonstrations. He later retracted the statement.
“How far to the right must Macronism drift to survive?” the columnist Françoise Fressoz asked in Le Monde.