France’s interior minister has ordered an inquiry into the actions of police in dismantling a protest refugee camp in central Paris during which they were filmed chasing people down streets and attacking journalists and others with truncheons and teargas.
Gérald Darmanin , who earlier described the photos and videos as “shocking”, said he had received a report on the police operation and would ask the IGPN – the police’s internal disciplinary body – to look into “several unacceptable” incidents.
Darmanin said he expected the inquiry to report back within 48 hours and promised to make the conclusions public.
The Paris mayor, Anne Hidalgo, also expressed outrage at what she called police “violence” and said the breaking up of the camp was a “denial of France’s humanitarian duty”.
“Present at the time, elected representatives of Paris city and of parliament reported, once again, the use of disproportionate and brutal force, confirmed by the many photographs that were taken. Unfortunately, this unacceptable episode is not without precedent,” Hidalgo wrote in a letter to Darmanin.
Police and gendarmes were sent in late on Monday to clear a camp from the square in central Paris. About 450 refugees set up tents at the request of the charity Utopia 56 to protest against the forcible clearing of a camp a few days previously that left scores of migrants wandering the streets.
Utopia 56 had issued a statement demanding the authorities provide shelter for the estimated 3,000 homeless migrants sleeping rough in and around the French capital.
As night fell, police and gendarmes arrived to clear the square. Officers were filmed pulling up tents and leaving migrants thrown to the ground.
Lawyers, MPs and city councillors in Place de la République tried to calm tensions and stop the police action, without success.
Police used teargas and crowd dispersal grenades to break up groups of people, and journalists said they were deliberately targeted.
Rémy Buisine, a reporter with the online news website Brut, said he was attacked three times by the same police officer despite showing his press card.
The police operation came at a delicate time for the French government, which is facing widespread criticism for a new law that would make it illegal to disseminate images of police officers in certain circumstances. Darmanin has vigorously defended Article 24 of the law, which would require media to obscure the faces of police officers, as “protecting those who protect us”.
The law, seen as a direct threat to press freedom, also authorises police use of drones and facial recognition technology. It has passed its first reading in the Assemblée Nationale.
The United Nations human rights council has expressed concerns about the law, while France’s own independent defender of rights, Claire Hédon, has expressed her reservations, saying she is especially concerned about the “envisaged restrictions concerning the publishing of images of police agents while on duty” and guarantees that these would not threaten “either the freedom of the press or the right to information”.
A statement from the police prefecture said the organisation of ad-hoc migrant camps in the city was “not acceptable” and that its officers had “therefore set about the immediate dispersion of this illegal occupation of a public space”.
In July, after the death of the French delivery driver Cédric Chouviat, who said “I’m suffocating” several times as police held him to the ground – an echo of George Floyd’s death in the US – Darmanin caused an outcry after telling the Assemblée Nationale: “When I hear the words ‘police violence’ personally, it’s me who suffocates.”
He added: “The police certainly exercise a violence, but it’s legitimate violence … after that, it has to be done in a proportional manner, within a framework. That a few people do so outside of the professional rules, punishment should be immediate. But it’s normal that the police and gendarmes are armed, intervene with force, so that the force remains with the Republic and is not subject to the law of gangs or communities.”
Ian Brossat, a deputy Paris mayor in charge of housing, who was present, condemned the police operation and said the only solution was for the state to find housing for the homeless.
“This problem is not one for the police to sort out. To think that we resolve social problems with truncheons is totally crazy,” Brossat said. “As long as there is no available housing, there will be people living outside, and as long as there are people living outside, there will be camps. To think we can solve that with the police harassment we have seen this evening is pathetic.”
Éric Coquerel, an MP for the leftwing La France Insoumise party, who was present at Place de la République on Monday, told FranceInfo: “If Mr Darmanin wants the images of what we saw yesterday spread then, well, all he has to do is get the law passed. If not, he should withdraw it.”
He added: “What we saw was repression that is sadly not that unusual but was completely disproportionate. Was there a risk to the police officers? No. Was there a risk of damage to property? No. Instead there was a repression that fell, I remind you, on people who are only demanding that their human rights are respected, on peaceful activists, on journalists and elected representatives without discrimination.”
Asked about police violence last year in the wake of the gilets jaunes protests, against which law and order forces used teargas, pepper spray, water cannon and rubber bullets, President Emmanuel Macron responded: “Don’t talk of ‘repression’ or ‘police violence’; these words are unacceptable in a legal state.”