Half an hour later, people living on the square in the small town of Sospel, 15km away, were woken by screams and wailing. They could see four stationary cars, and a frantic little crowd of men and women shouting in a language they could not understand. One of the women was bent over a child wrapped in a quilt and crying out for a doctor. The doctor looked at the child, who was still warm, but no longer breathing. He unwrapped the quilt and saw eight-year-old Todor Bogdanovic, who had been in the boot of the Passat, had a bullet hole in his throat.
It is true that the French never had quite the same romantic view of their police as the British once had of their bobbies on the beat, but nor have they ever thought of them as old-style American cops, as ready with a bullet or a fist as a notebook and pencil. This incident is one of two in recent weeks that have combined to prompt unusual soul-searching in France about the nature of the police and the way they are performing their duties.
The other incident took place nine days before the drama at Sospel, when a three-man police patrol stopped a young man of Arab appearance near the centre of Marseilles and asked for his papers. Whether he showed them is a matter of dispute, but what happened next is not: he was bundled into the police car and transported to a disused quarry-cum-container- park on the edge of the northern suburbs. He was thrown into one of the containers and savagely beaten before managing to escape.
For several days, his life was in danger. He is still in hospital. One of the three policemen was subsequently caught at the container park, trying to find the truncheon, engraved with his name, that he had left behind. Unfortunately for him, the truncheon had already been found; so had the bloodstains in the container, and the victim, 30- year-old Sid Hamed Amiri, turned out to be a dual French-Algerian national, whose papers were entirely in order.
These basic facts of the two incidents are not disputed, though other details are. These include the purpose of the Sospel convoy's journey, the legality of its entry into France and the nationality of the 43 people on board. Initially the occupants claimed to be Bosnian Muslims seeking aslyum from war and persecution. Their papers, however, showed them to be gypsies from Novi Pazar in Serbia, who could travel through Italy without visas but not through France.
There is a dispute, too, about whether they recognised the police post as such. Some of them said they thought they were being held up by bandits. The police say the blue light of their (otherwise unmarked) car was flashing and they were wearing reflecting jackets marked "Police". Now, to the disgust of immigrants' organisations, all except the immediate family of the dead boy face deportation.
In the Marseilles case, what is in dispute is the initial conduct of the victim, a homeless man said to have been involved in a dispute about a squat.
As far as the Sospel incident is concerned, standing orders permit a policeman to fire only in self-defence, not in order to prevent illegal passage. The officer who fired has been suspended pending an inquiry. In the Marseilles case, the three policemen admitted the beating and were at once suspended by order of the Interior Minister, Jean-Louis Debre.
What has shocked French opinion as much as the events themselves is that the police in each case were senior, experienced men with excellent records. Racism seems not to have been a motive: two of the three Marseilles police are married to women of Maghrebi origin. Their victim says he was not subjected to racial abuse.
Conclusions link several circumstances: edginess after recent bomb attacks in Paris, concern about illegal immigration, human frailty, and an inadequate chain of command in parts of the force that allows officers great autonomy so long as they deliver results. By the time these police officers come to court, such circumstances, taken singly, will probably ring hollow. Taken together, however, they seem to have proved explosive - and to have told the French something about their police they would prefer not to have known.Reuse content