France backtracks from ban on chokeholds after police protests

Protesters clench fists in a march organised by supporters of Adama Traoré against police brutality in Paris. (AP pic)

PARIS: The French government has suspended a ban on chokeholds by the police, a technique that has been widely denounced by Black Lives Matter activists at rallies against racism.

The ban was announced last week after demonstrations spurred by the death of George Floyd in the US, a black man who pleaded “I can’t breathe” as an officer kneeled on his neck.

But the move sparked furious protests from police unions, who said the long-used technique was essential for ensuring officers’ safety, and accused the government of failing to appreciate the perils of their work.

“While awaiting a clarification of the new framework and when circumstances require it, the technique known as a chokehold will continue to be used with restraint and discernment,” national police chief Frederic Veaux said in a letter to staff on Monday, seen by AFP.

In particular, the technique can be used when a person resists arrest or threatens an officer or other people.

Veaux said a commission would be set up on Wednesday to begin working on possible “substitution techniques”, with recommendations due by Sept 1.

Police unions, which have staged angry protests across France that saw officers throw down their handcuffs while rejecting claims of systemic racism or violence, welcomed the reversal.

“It’s a step in the right direction, but it won’t be enough to dissipate the anger among the police,” said Patrice Ribeiro, head of the Synergie-Officiers union.

“It’s a note that comes late but is welcome,” agreed Yves Lefebvre of the Unite-SGP-FO union.

Police forces in several countries are debating the continued use of chokeholds, as protesters call for reforms in the wake of Floyd’s death, the latest in a series of black Americans killed in police custody.

This month, the state of New York adopted a chokehold ban among several laws aimed at ending excessive force by officers.

In France, the protests have coalesced around the case of Adama Traoré, a 24-year-old black man who died at a police station shortly after his arrest in 2016.

Traoré’s family claim he was suffocated as officers held him down, an accusation that medical assessments ordered by French investigators have rejected. Prosecutors said this month that the inquiry was still going on.