PARIS (AFP) - France's Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin sparked fresh outrage on Wednesday (July 29) by saying claims of police brutality made him "suffocate", recalling the words of a man who asphyxiated after being pinned to the ground by arresting officers.
Darmanin's words "have deeply scandalised and upset" the loved ones of Cedric Chouviat, lawyers for the dead man's family said in a statement.
"Everyone must consider what these words say about the contempt and cynicism of the interior minister for families left bereaved or wounded by police violence."
Darmanin's appointment this month despite an ongoing rape investigation against him sparked widespread anger and protests by women's rights groups.
He took over from Christophe Castaner as France's "top cop" at a time the country is reeling from demonstrations against alleged police racism and brutality.
The death in January of Chouviat, who was of North African origin, had echoes of the police killing in the United States of George Floyd, a black man who had pleaded "I can't breathe" with officers who pinned him down as they arrested him.
Chouviat, a 42-year-old delivery man, died in hospital two days after a heated exchange with police who held him down, still wearing his scooter helmet, for about 20 seconds after his arrest near the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
Video of the incident showed him saying: "I'm suffocating" seven times before his body went limp.
Three French police officers have been charged with manslaughter over his death.
Anti-police protests in France in recent months were sparked by a report clearing the officers who arrested Adama Traore, a 24-year-old black man who died in police custody in 2016, allegedly also after being pinned to the ground.
Darmanin rejected allegations of police brutality before parliament on Tuesday, telling lawmakers the police exercise "legitimate violence" before adding "When I hear the phrase 'police violence', personally, I suffocate."
A member of Darmanin's team told AFP the minister had employed "a commonly used French expression, understood by all", and there had been "no ulterior motive".
Darminin said "je m'etouffe", which in French is the same verb Chouviat used as he pleaded with police, but as an expression can also be employed to express shock.
Government spokesman Gabriel Attal said the minister's choice of words were "clearly not linked" to Chouviat's death and said the country should not get bogged down in "semantic battles".
"Those who have suffocated from police violence are unfortunately no longer here to talk about it," tweeted leftist European Parliament MP Manon Aubry, regretting Darmanin's "terrible choice of words".
Greens politician David Corman accuse the minister of seeking to divert attention from his legal troubles, while senator Laurence Rossignol tweeted "#WordsKill".
Appeals judges in Paris last month ordered a new investigation into claims by a woman that Darmanin raped her in 2009 after she sought his help to have a criminal record expunged.
At the time, he was a political party legal affairs adviser.
Darmanin insists they had consensual sex.