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POLICE

France begins consultation on increasing public confidence in police

The French government begins a public consultation exercise on Monday aimed at devising ways to increase public confidence in the police that has been eroded by repeated scandals over racism and brutality.

France begins consultation on increasing public confidence in police
Illustration photo: AFP

The initiative was proposed by President Emmanuel Macron in December in order to diffuse criticism of French security forces which are regularly accused of discrimination and using excessive force.

In November, video of Paris police beating and abusing a black music producer inside his studio shocked the country, but other recent incidents include the violent clearing of a migrant camp in the centre of the capital.

During months of anti-government demonstrations by so-called “yellow vest” protesters in 2018-19, around 20 people lost an eye and dozens were seriously injured by police rubber bullets and stun grenades.

“We need to act urgently,” Macron wrote on December 8th when announcing the consultation to “consolidate” the link between the police and the French population, which is expected to last until May.

“I want to advance quickly and concretely to improve the working conditions for the noble and essential job of keeping the peace,” he added. “France hangs together through its police and gendarmes.”

Pitching the idea as both a listening exercise and a way of improving working conditions for officers is a sign of the delicate balancing act faced by the head of state.

Despite wide-ranging demands for better community relations, Macron is aware that officers are on the frontlines of often violent streets protests, as well as anti-terror operations.

He angered police unions when he acknowledged in December that identity checks carried out by security forces targeted ethnic minorities disproportionately – a common complaint from residents in high-immigration areas.

“When you have a skin colour that is not white, you are stopped much more. You are identified as a problem factor. And that cannot be justified,” he told the Brut video website.

Yves Lefebvre, a trade union leader, wrote to him afterwards to complain, saying that the fault lay in “decades of urbanisation policies that have piled up immigrant populations in the same areas”.

The consultations will see police union leaders, former officers and local mayors invited to give their opinions in a process overseen by hardline Interior Minister Gérald Darminin.

Darmanin is also set to tour the country to meet local officers, but it remains unclear how much civil society groups and academics will be asked to contribute.

The conclusions are set to inform a new draft security law which will be brought before parliament before France holds a presidential election in the first half of 2022.

A previous draft sparked protests in November and December over a clause that would have criminalised publishing images identifying on-duty officers.

Long-standing proposals for improving confidence in French security forces include more local policing focused on problem-solving, rather than simply repression, and a truly independent police complaints process.

Critics have dismissed the latest consultations as a PR exercise.

Interior Minister Darmanin made his views on police brutality clear in July last year in the wake of the killing in the United States of George Floyd, a black man who choked to death while being arrested.

“When I hear the words police violence, personally it makes me choke,” Darmanin told a parliamentary hearing.

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POLITICS

French government aims to block ‘burkinis’ in swimming pools

France's interior minister said on Tuesday that he would seek to overturn a rule change in the city of Grenoble that would allow women to wear burkinis in state-run swimming pools.

French government aims to block 'burkinis' in swimming pools

The all-in-one swimsuit, used by some Muslim women to cover their bodies and hair while bathing, is a controversial issue in France where critics see it as a symbol of creeping Islamisation.

The Alpine city of Grenoble changed its swimming pool rules on Monday to allow all types of bathing suits, not just traditional swimming costumes for women and trunks for men which were mandated before.

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin called the change an “unacceptable provocation” that was “contrary to our values”, adding that he had asked for a legal challenge to the new regulations.

Under a new law to counter “Islamist separatism” passed by parliament last year, the government can challenge decisions it suspects of undermining France’s strict secular traditions that are meant to separate religions from the state.

Attempts by several local mayors in the south of France to ban the burkini on Mediterranean beaches in the summer of 2016 kicked off the first firestorm around the bathing suit.

The restrictions were eventually overturned for being discriminatory.

Grenoble’s mayor Eric Piolle, one of the country’s highest profile Green politicians who leads a broad left-wing coalition locally, has championed the city’s move as a victory.

“All we want is for women and men to be able to dress how they want,” Piolle told broadcaster RMC on Monday.

The head of the EELV party, Julien Bayou, argued that the decision had nothing to do with secularism laws, which oblige state officials to be neutral in religious matters but guarantee the rights of citizens to practice their faith freely.

Burkinis are not banned in French state-run pools on religious grounds, but for hygiene reasons, while swimmers are not under any legal obligation to hide their religion while bathing.

“I want Muslim women to be able to practice their religion, or change it, or not believe, and I would like them to be able to go swimming,” he added. “I want them also to suffer less demands to dress in one way or another.”

Grenoble is not the first French city to change its rules.

The northwestern city of Rennes quietly updated its pool code in 2019 to allow burkinis and other types of swimwear.

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