Demonstrations in Paris following the death of Adama Traore while in police custody unearth deep rooted racial tensions.
A 22-year-old black youth worker was arrested in France and allegedly raped with a baton, leading to accusations of police brutality and street protests calling for justice.
Hundreds marched on Monday in the northern Paris suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois to demand justice for the alleged victim, named as Theo.
A day earlier, one officer was charged with rape, while three others were charged with assault over the arrest on Thursday in the northern suburb.
Theo suffered severe anal injuries which required surgery. He also suffered injuries to the head and face, leading a doctor to declare him unfit to work for 60 days.
Interior Minister Bruno Le Roux confirmed late on Sunday that all four officers had been suspended during the investigation, adding that exemplary conduct and respect “must guide the behaviour of security forces at all times”.
As anger boiled over the incident, there were minor clashes and arson attacks on the vast housing estate on Saturday and Sunday evening. At least five people were arrested, police sources said.
The activist group Black Lives Matter France, an offshoot of the movement against police brutality in the United States, seized on the case and helped organise protests afterwards.
Explaining Theo’s arrest, his brother-in-law Johann told BFM television: “He was there at the wrong time and came across some crooks.”
His sister Aurelie called for calm as supporters gathered outside her brother’s home on Monday holding banners reading “Justice Pour Theo”, or “Justice For Theo”.
The local prosecutor’s office said that the police had stopped a group of around a dozen people “after hearing calls characteristic of lookouts at drug-dealing sites”.
During the operation, they “attempted to arrest a 22-year-old man”.
When he resisted, they used tear gas, and “one of them used an expandable baton”, the prosecutor’s office said, without giving further details.
The Socialist politician in charge of the Seine-Saint-Denis region where Aulnay-sous-Bois is located, Stephane Troussel, said the incident raised “numerous questions”.
“Although thousands of police are doing their work properly … too many arrests end in nightmares for some young people. The image of the Republic is being tarnished. We have to urgently find a solution,” he said in a statement.
The alleged police attack follows the death last year of a man in police custody in another Parisian suburb, which led to violent protests.
The death in July of 24-year-old Adama Traore led to nights of violence in Beaumont-sur-Oise against the police, with cars set alight.
In 2005, the deaths 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.
The far-right National Front, which is riding high in the polls before presidential and parliamentary elections from April, jumped to the defence of France’s security forces.
Its anti-immigrant leader Marine Le Pen rails frequently against “lawlessness” and promises “zero tolerance” of crime in the rundown suburbs which are home to many newcomers to France.
“If the facts are confirmed, then it’s serious and reprehensible,” the party’s secretary general, Nicolas Bay, told France 2 television on Monday. “[But] one shouldn’t take advantage to heap criticism on the police who do admirable work in very difficult conditions.”
French police say they are frequently targeted in rough areas around Paris and other cities as they play a game of cat-and-mouse with gangs and drug dealers.
Officers protested in October last year, gathering in cities to denounce their increasing workload, bureaucracy, outdated equipment and what is seen as lenient sentencing for violence against officers.