A video showing French police dragging immigrant women and children away from a protest squat has sharpened accusations that President Nicolas Sarkozy has made a cynical turn towards the authoritarian right.
Although police insist that the disturbing footage is misleading, the film of the apparently brutal arrests north of Paris last month coincides with a noisy campaign by the floundering Mr Sarkozy to revive his image as a politician tough on crime and immigration.
In the video, posted on YouTube, DailyMotion and other sites, a pregnant African woman is seen screaming as she is dragged away by police. Another woman, a baby strapped to her back, is seen being dragged along the ground by police officers.
The film was shot on 21 July at La Courneuve when police broke up a demonstration by 150 people, mostly African immigrant women, protesting against their eviction from illegal squats in a council tower block.
Although the incident passed off without much reaction at the time, homeless and immigrant support groups have used the footage to draw attention to what they say is a more violent approach – and a sense of Sarkozy-inspired immunity – among some French police officers.
The allegation comes at a time when Mr Sarkozy stands accused of launching a barrage of hardline measures to move attention away from damaging political scandals and dismal poll ratings. Although the squat arrests preceded his get-tough campaign, they took place in the same troubled estate, La Cité des 4,000, where the President once threatened to use a "Karcher", or industrial hose, to clean out drug gangs.
Jean-Baptiste Eyrault, spokesman for the homeless pressure group Droit au Logement (DAL), said yesterday that the violence at La Courneuve showed that a "threshold" had been crossed. "Police don't normally act like this," he said. "I'm afraid we're going to see more and more of this kind of behaviour. The head of state governs through the police and, in return, the police feel protected."
A police spokesman said that the short video, which was viewed more than 400,000 times in its first day on the French site DailyMotion, had been misleadingly edited. The evacuation and arrest of the demonstrators had been mostly peaceful, the police said. The woman with a baby on her back had "thrown herself on the ground", a spokesman said, "which meant the officers could not at first see her baby".
Mainstream politicians were cautious about criticising the police, preferring to attack the extraordinary array of new repressive measures announced by the government in recent days. A rural riot involving French gypsies last month – following the shooting of a young French traveller by a gendarme – led to a threat by the President of mass closures of camps of Roma gypsies from Eastern Europe. He also wants to revoke the French citizenship of any foreign-born person who attacks the police.
In an aggressive speech in Grenoble last Friday, Mr Sarkozy made a direct connection between immigration and crime. He said France was "suffering the consequences of 50 years of insufficiently regulated immigration", words which reminded his critics of the far-right National Front. On Sunday, Mr Sarkozy's interior minister, Brice Hortefeux, said citizenship could also be stripped from those found guilty of "polygamy, female circumcision or other serious criminal acts".
Christophe Borgel, national secretary of opposition Socialist party, said Mr Sarkozy's attacks on crime and immigration were clearly intended to distract from the allegations of illegal financing of the President's party raised by the L'Oréal family feud scandal last month. "The harshness of his words and the uncontrolled nature of the proposals is intended to distract from his failures ... His determination to create controversy [over crime] in August is intended to mask the scandals which occupied the month of July," Mr Borgel said.
Centre-left politicians know, however, that with less than two years to the next presidential election, Mr Sarkozy would love to switch the national debate from the economy and political scandals to crime and punishment. If the left criticises his proposals too loudly, he will accuse them of being soft on crime. Thus the video of the muscular break-up of the La Courneuve protest could help, rather than damage, the President's strategy.