Amnesty International is sounding the alarm in France over alleged police brutality in the enforcement of a nationwide coronavirus lockdown.
The warning comes after violent clashes in the country’s poorer suburbs, where residents struggling with confinement in overcrowded apartments have accused authorities of heavy-handed tactics.
The NGO says it has verified 15 videos showing police using excessive force or making derogatory comments while controlling whether people complied with strict lockdown measures meant to curb the spread of COVID-19.
They were filmed across 15 French towns between March 18 and April 25.
"All of these videos illustrate cases of violations of international law relating to human rights: unlawful, excessive or unnecessary use of force, racist or homophobic insults," Amnesty International said in a statement on Thursday.
While it notes that "the task of law enforcement is a complex and challenging one," and many police checks do comply with the law, "the seriousness of these cases, their recurrence in different places across the country show that these are not isolated behaviours".
France’s interior ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Violent clashes spread across France’s suburbs in late April. Angry youth accused authorities of taking advantage of their mandate to enforce restrictions and said police had harassed, humiliated and even abused them. Over the course of several nights, cars and rubbish bins were set on fire.
Euronews correspondent Anelise Borges has been meeting with residents and documenting the tensions in a series of reports.
One young man told Euronews he took part in clashes in his neighbourhood in late April to protest against what he described as police brutality.
"It’s sad to say, but we want to maybe hurt their colleagues so that they feel what we feel when they hurt our friends," said the man, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"They come and they abuse their power. They hit. They don’t even come to control people anymore, but to hit."
The unrest was triggered by a series of videos posted online showing police confronting and hitting those who broke confinement rules in poor areas of France.
French police have conducted at least 19 million checks so far throughout the nation’s eight-week lockdown.
Interior minister Christophe Castaner acknowledged in an interview that police were conducting twice as many checks in poor neighbourhoods such as the Paris suburbs of Seine Saint-Denis.
Crime is a problem in these areas, where youth unemployment runs more than double the national average.
However, Anne-Sophie Simpere, advocacy officer at Amnesty International France, noted that France has been condemned in the past by the European Court of Human Rights on a number of cases of illegal use of force.
"This is very problematic in normal times. It’s especially problematic in the context of an epidemic where the question of trust between population and authorities is key to solve the problem," she said.
An incident in which a motorcycle crashed into an unmarked police car, triggering unrest in Villeneuve-la-Garenne last month, is currently under investigation.
But many residents and politicians are now drawing comparisons to the riots that shook the country in 2005, following the deaths of two teenagers during a police chase.
"We are not immune to the return of the riots of 2005. From the moment we have a context that allows for that and we have the spark for it to resume... we are not immune," said Brice Nkonda, a municipal council member in Villeneuve-la-Garenne.
"Especially considering the particular context of confinement, because with the coronavirus, we live in a pressure cooker."
You can watch Anelise's report in the video player above.