French leaders try to stem fury over alleged police rape

People holding signs during a protest against police brutality in Paris on Feb 6, 2017.
People holding signs during a protest against police brutality in Paris on Feb 6, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

PARIS (AFP) - The French government sought on Tuesday  (Feb 7) to calm growing anger over the alleged rape of a man during his arrest in a Paris suburb last week, after a third night of violent clashes with police.

A 22-year-old black youth worker named as Theo required surgery after his arrest on Thursday when he claims a police officer sodomised him with his baton.

One officer has been charged with rape and three others with assault over the incident in the tough Paris suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois which has revived past controversies over alleged police brutality.

“I know how police officers are exposed in the fight against terrorism and violence, but they have to be exemplary at every moment,” Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve told parliament.

He urged the “utmost severity” if the officers, all of whom have been suspended, are found to have committed a crime.
French President Francois Hollande went to visit Theo in hospital in the gritty mostly high-rise area on the outskirts of Paris, staying for half an hour at his bedside, an aide told AFP.

For the third night in a row, police intervened on Monday night on the vast “3,000” housing estate in Aulnay-sous-Bois to control local youths who burned cars and damaged public property, police said.

A total of 26 people were arrested and some police officers fired shots in the air after finding themselves cornered at one point, a police source told AFP.

The mayor of the area, Bruno Beschizza, sought to reassure residents that “we are not at the stage where there will be riots” but he called for the French state to react.

“For the moment it’s a public order problem,” he said in a statement which urged the interior ministry to demonstrate that the justice system was working for local people “not against them.”

Hundreds of people incensed by the treatment of Theo, who comes from a well-respected family in the area, marched Monday through Aulnay-sous-Bois in a peaceful demonstration.

The case has again cast a spotlight on the contentious issue of policing in France’s poor suburbs after protests over the death of a black man in custody last year and major riots a decade ago.

Police say they are frequently targeted by delinquents as they play a game of cat-and-mouse with gangs and drug dealers in tough multi-ethnic parts of French suburbs.

Officers staged nationwide protests in October to denounce their work conditions after the firebombing of a police car which left an officer in a coma.

The far-right National Front has sought to cast itself as the defender of security forces, with leader Marine Le Pen saying Tuesday that her “basic principle” was to support the police unless a crime had been committed.

France goes to the polls to elect a new president in April and May and a new parliament in June.

In 2005, the death of two teenagers who were electrocuted while hiding from police in an electricity substation sparked weeks of riots. Around 10,000 cars were burned and 6,000 people were arrested.