A week after a raid on an encampment in a Paris suburb housing more than 2,000 mostly Afghan and Eastern African refugees, police on Monday night violently broke up another migrant camp—this one in the center of the French capital—drawing widespread stinging condemnation, including from the country’s staunchly pro-police interior minister.
“We don’t have any place to live, we don’t have any place to sleep. Winter is coming. It’s getting cold.”
—Murtaza Ramiz Voezi, Afghan refugee
Video shared on social media by journalists, activists, and advocates showed police attacking the camp in Place de la République with tear gas and batons and brutalizing migrants and those who tried to help them.
Volunteers had set up around 500 tents to house the mostly Afghan migrants who had been forced from other encampments or shelters in the area with winter fast approaching amid a second deadly wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We don’t have any place to live, we don’t have any place to sleep,” Afghan refugee Murtaza Ramiz Voezi told Euronews. “Winter is coming. It’s getting cold. We need somewhere to sleep.”
La police nous nasse et resserre sur les tentes. Nous sommes encerclé.e.s par des policiers qui chassent les personnes exilées et retirent comme d’habitude les tentes, sans pour autant avoir de solution d’hébergement https://t.co/SmPZcDDtU4
— Utopia 56 (@Utopia_56) November 23, 2020
Once dislodged from the square, more than 300 people then marched to City Hall to demand shelter for migrants and accountability for violent police. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo—who is herself an immigrant—expressed the “strongest condemnation” for the “particularly brutal and shocking police interventions against refugees” in a Tuesday letter to French Interior Minister Gérard Darmanin.
Suite aux interventions policières particulièrement brutales et choquantes contre des réfugiés dans Paris hier soir, j’ai écrit ce matin au ministre de l’Intérieur pour lui faire part de ma plus ferme condamnation. pic.twitter.com/YtWgGZG8UX
— Anne Hidalgo (@Anne_Hidalgo) November 24, 2020
Darmanin, who has expressed disdain for any criticism of police violence—declaring in July that “police do exercise violence, but legitimate violence” after officers killed two men of African origin using dangerous chokeholds—also condemned scenes from Monday’s raid as “shocking.” The minister vowed he would order the police inspector general to investigate “several unacceptable actions” during the dispersal.
Certaines images de la dispersion du campement illicite de migrants place de la République sont choquantes. Je viens de demander un rapport circonstancié sur la réalité des faits au Préfet de police d’ici demain midi. Je prendrai des décisions dès sa réception.
— Gérald DARMANIN (@GDarmanin) November 23, 2020
Ian Brossat, who advises Hidalgo on housing and refugee protection, condemned the raid.
“To think that we will solve a social problem with police batons is totally delusional,” he tweeted on Tuesday. “The risk is that tomorrow it will be the same story.”
“As long as there is no accommodation there will be people outside,” Brossat added. “As long as there are people living outside there will be camps. To think we will regulate this with police harassment, as they did this evening, it’s not ethical.”
The French migrant advocacy group Utopia 56 said many of the people at the Place de la République camp were victims of another violent police raid on a large camp in the northern suburb of St. Denis, near the Stade de France, in the pre-dawn hours last Tuesday.
Paris Police Prefect Didier Lallement told reporters at a press conference later that day that the eviction’s purpose was to “ensure that people with the right to be here are given shelter and those who do not have that right do not remain on French territory.”
Hier a eu lieu l’expulsion du camp de demandeurs d’asile à Saint-Denis. Nous avons vécu une expulsion violente et une chasse à l’homme sans proposition de mise à l’abri pour 1 000 personnes. Des recours juridiques sont en préparation pic.twitter.com/Oj1jFAgFMt
— Utopia 56 (@Utopia_56) November 18, 2020
Referring to the St. Denis raid, Utopia 56 co-founder Yann Manzi said that “every night since the evacuation of the camp, police teams have hunted down, expelled, humiliated, and gassed the blankets of people trying to find a place to sleep.”
In a statement, Utopia 56 said it is “asking… the government to create 1,000 immediate unconditional accommodation places in order to be able to shelter” the migrants displaced by the raids, as well as for “respect for their fundamental rights and an immediate and continuous end to police violence against them.”
“Every night… police teams have hunted down, expelled, humiliated, and gassed the blankets of people trying to find a place to sleep.”
—Yann Manzi, Utopia 56
Utopia 56—which is calling for the resignation of both Darmanin and Lallement—announced plans for a protest to take place Tuesday evening at 6:00 pm local time in Place de la République.
Tuesday’s incident comes as the French National Assembly prepares to vote on Article 24, proposed law—strongly supported by Darmanin—that would criminalize online posting of videos of police or soldiers in which they can be identified. Human rights and press freedom groups have condemned the measure, which would make such posts punishable by up to a year in prison and a fine up to €45,000 ($53,000).
French police have long been condemned by domestic and international human rights groups for their often heavy-handed treatment of refugees and other migrants. Last June, Amnesty International criticized police for violently attacking not only refugees, but also people who help them.
It’s not only newly-arriving immigrants who feel the sometimes heavy hand of French policing. On Monday, the New York Times reported that squads of police wearing balaclavas and armed with assault weapons stormed and searched apartments of the families of children as young as 10 years old who, for straying from patriotic orthodoxy in the wake of the beheading of a teacher who showed caricatures of the Muslim prophet Mohammed in class, were detained and aggressively interrogated after their teachers reported them to authorities.
Some of the older children caught up in what critics are calling a violation of their free expression could be charged with “defending terrorism” for saying things like the teacher would still be alive if he had not shown the cartoons.