Violent clashes erupted in Paris on Saturday as tens of thousands took to the streets to protest against new security legislation, with tensions intensified by the police beating and racial abuse of a black man that shocked France.
Several fires were started in Paris, sending acrid smoke into the air, as protesters vented their anger against the security law, which would restrict the publication of police officers’ faces.
About 46,000 people marched in Paris and 133,000 in total nationwide, the French Ministry of the Interior said.
Protest organizers said about 500,000 joined nationwide, including 200,000 in the capital.
French President Emmanuel Macron late on Friday said that the images of the beating of black music producer Michel Zecler by police officers in Paris last weekend “shame us.”
The incident had magnified concerns about alleged systemic racism in the police force.
“Police everywhere, justice nowhere,” “Police state” and “Smile while you are beaten” were among the slogans brandished as protesters marched from Place de la Republique to the nearby Place de la Bastille.
“We have felt for a long time to have been the victim of institutionalized racism from the police,” said Mohamed Magassa 35, who works in a reception center for minors.
“But now we feel that this week all of France has woken up,” he said.
“The fundamental and basic liberties of our democracy are being attacked — freedom of expression and information,” added Sophie Misiraca, 46, a lawyer.
Several vehicles, a newspaper kiosk and a brasserie were set on fire close to Place de la Bastille, police said.
Some protesters threw stones at the security forces, who responded with tear gas and water cannon, an Agence France-Presse (AFP) correspondent said.
Police said that protesters impeded fire services from putting out the blazes and that nine people had been detained by the early evening.
French Minister of the Interior Gerald Darmanin condemned “unacceptable” violence against the police, saying 37 members of the security forces had been injured nationwide.
Thousands also took part in other marches in about 70 cities in France, including in Bordeaux, Lille, Montpellier and Nantes.
An investigation has been opened against the four police involved, but commentators have said that the images — first published by the Loopsider news site — might never have been made public if the contentious Article 24 of the security legislation was made law.
The article would criminalize the publication of images of on-duty police officers with the intent of harming their “physical or psychological integrity.”
It was passed by the French National Assembly, although it is awaiting French Senate approval.
The controversy over the law and police violence is developing into another crisis for the government as Macron confronts the COVID-19 pandemic, its economic fallout and a host of problems on the international stage.
For critics, the legislation is further evidence of a slide to the right by Macron, who came to power in 2017 as a centrist promising liberal reform of France.
“The police violence has left Emmanuel Macron facing a political crisis,” Le Monde said.
Separately, a press freedom group has denounced the “unacceptable” injury of an award-winning Syrian photojournalist during the protest in Paris.
Ameer Alhalbi, a freelance photographer who worked for Polka Magazine and AFP, was covering the demonstrations in the French capital.
In AFP photos Alhalbi’s face appears bruised, with much of his head covered in bandages.
Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Christophe Deloire wrote on Twitter that the 24-year-old had been wounded at Place de la Bastille by “a police baton” and condemned the violence.
“Ameer came from #Syria to #France to take refuge, like several other Syrian journalists. The land of human rights should not threaten them, but protect them,” he wrote in a second tweet.
Dimitri Beck, director of photography for Polka, said that Alhalbi had sustained a broken nose and injured forehead, and had been taken to hospital.
Alhalbi has won several international awards, including second prize in the “Spot News” category for the World Press Photo in 2017, mainly for his coverage of the Syrian conflict in his home city Aleppo for AFP.
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