As an example of the increasingly out-of-control power of France’s burgeoning security state, the case of Alexandre Benalla is hugely instructive.
He is the 26-year-old head of security to President Emmanuel Macron, who was identified by Le Monde as the man in a video beating up anti-government protesters while pretending to be a riot police officer.
Amid claims of a government cover-up, Benalla was originally suspended from work for two weeks for this recreational violence, before being brought back into the president’s entourage. No complaints were made to the judiciary, and there were no press releases about the scandal, which is being described as the biggest of the Macron presidency to date. In the video, several police officers watch Benalla without intervening.
It was only when incriminating film appeared in the media last week that Benalla was finally sacked. He has now been charged with a range of offences, including violent conduct and impersonating a police officer, and faces possible imprisonment.
Vincent Crase, another Élysée-linked thug, was also involved in the trouble. The former reservist gendarme had already been dismissed from presidential service following similar incidents, but nothing stopped him from allegedly softening up demonstrators before allowing Benalla to take them away for a proper beating.
Crase has been charged with violent conduct, as well as carrying an offensive weapon, along with three police officers who are said to have illegally disposed of official footage of the incidents. While working for Macron’s party, both Benalla and Crase had suggested equipping themselves with rubber bullet-firing guns.
Despite such antecedents, colleagues who initially investigated them over the Paris assaults, including interior minister Gérard Collomb, appeared to be unconcerned by the amount of force used.
The minister, who learned of the video on the 2 May, was questioned by a parliamentary commission over his handling of the case on Monday. He claims he did not report the video to prosecutors because it was not up to him to respond.
Such relaxed treatment towards confirmed henchmen would not have been granted to Crase or Benalla if they were among the usual suspects from immigrant backgrounds who are routinely targeted by law and order officials on the streets of France.
On the contrary, Macron has fast-tracked a series of hugely reactionary measures, all of them aimed at clamping down heavily on perceived wrongdoers, whether accusations against them have been proved or not.
The justification offered at all times is “the fight against terrorism”, with draconian new laws rubber stamped by Macron last November sanctioning increased stop-and-search checks, raids on private property, house arrests, and the like.
This has led to widespread condemnations, including from the European Court of Human Rights and the UN Committee vs Torture, that those from ethnic and religious minorities, and especially those with dark skin, are the principal targets of overzealous policing.
Officers have effectively been given carte blanche to harass whoever they want, and this inevitably means those who look as though they might be from immigrant stock.
As civil liberties and human rights groups complain, incidents of police overstepping the mark continue unabated.
This month Aboubakar Fofana, a criminal suspect who also happened to be a black Muslim from an African background, was shot dead by an officer during an attempted arrest on a housing estate in Nantes, western France.
At first, police said they were using “appropriate force”, but then – as in the Benalla case – video shot on smartphones by members of the public revealed otherwise. An unnamed officer was seen leaning into the stationary car that Fofana was sitting in, and putting a bullet into his neck.
The officer with the gun has been charged with manslaughter (this could be raised to murder as the enquiry continues), and he and at least five of his colleagues have admitted to lying. Their attempted cover-up may well be the kind that has always occurred, but in an age of smartphones and CCTV everywhere, they are becoming very hard to sustain.
All of the police in the Fofana case are members of the Republican Security Companies, or CRS as they are better known. These are uniquely French paramilitaries, who do not have an equivalent in countries such as Britain.
They are heavily armed, extremely aggressive, and trained to subdue, rather than engage in any kind of consensual community policing.
Macron and Collomb continue to flood the streets of France with such units, and indeed regular military ones. Their budgets are going up, along with the kind of weapons they are allowed to carry. It is now quite normal to see soldiers in battle fatigues brandishing semi-automatic rifles, supporting police in the centre of major towns and cities including Paris.
Yes, the fear of terrorist attack can legitimately be used to sanction such shows of strength. France has gone through some appalling attacks in recent years, with members of all types of communities becoming victims.
However, law enforcement should not be corrupted into a chance to persecute. Gratuitous brutality is far more likely to increase anger and alienation among those drawn to crime, rather than to contain it.
There is compelling evidence that enforcers such as Benalla are attracted to policing because it gives them the opportunity to physically attack their ideological enemies.
In a country like France, which professes to be built on civilised values, this is a scandal for which Macron must now answer. His image is quickly shifting from one of a relaxed liberal centrist to that of an uncompromising reactionary, and the Benalla debacle has done nothing to stop this.
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