Hundreds of French police officers gathered Wednesday on the historic Place de la République in the east of Paris to denounce mounting anti-cop violence during recent protests against the country's controversial labor reforms.
The Paris rally was organized by Alliance, the country's leading police union. Officers also gathered outside of police stations elsewhere in France to demonstrate against what their unions are calling "anti-police hatred."
To liven up the protest, which was only open to police officers and the press, the organizers sounded sirens and encouraged the crowd to applaud the cops tasked with keeping the peace on the square.
Just a stone's throw from the heavily guarded site of the police protest in Paris, 200 counter-protesters challenged an official ban by staging their own improvised demonstration.
Chanting "police everywhere, justice nowhere," the demonstrators held up banners denouncing examples of police brutality, including the deaths of Zyed and Bouna, two teens who died in 2005 when they hid from cops inside a power substation on the outskirts of Paris.
Also featured was the death of young environmental activist Rémi Fraisse, who was killed by a police grenade during a protest in the forest of Sivens in 2014.
"Police officers do not always control their use of violence," said Jérôme, a high school student. Like thousands of other students in Paris, Jérôme has taken to the streets several times in the last few months to voice his anger over the proposed labor law, which much of the public fears will rob workers of hard-earned rights.
"We're starting to get used to police violence," he remarked, "but we shouldn't."
Jérôme called the police union's decision to protest on Place de la République nothing short of a "provocation." For weeks now, the square had served as the unofficial headquarters of Nuit Debout (Stand Up at Night) — an Occupy-style movement that has seen protesters gathering nightly on the square to voice their discontent at the government and its reform bill. There have been allegations of police intimidation and abuse at these gatherings.
Following a small scuffle on the square around noon, police officers used tear gas to push back counter-protesters who then set off north towards the Canal Saint-Martin, where a group of them set a police car on fire.
According to eyewitnesses, the blaze was started by a smoke bomb.
Two police officers who were in the car when the vehicle caught fire suffered minor injuries.
Fire crews later extinguished the blaze. The Paris prosecutor's office has opened an investigation into the incident, and is preparing charges of "attempted manslaughter of a person in a position of public authority" and "destruction by arson."
News of the blazing police car spread like wildfire at the square, as officers shared images of the incinerated vehicle. Surrounded by clouds of orange and blue smoke — the colors of the Alliance police union — officers chanted "the police are angry" to the tune of AC/DC's "Highway to Hell."
Many of the police officers at the protest were reluctant to talk to the press, some of them invoking the "duty of confidentiality during and outside of service." But others were more forthcoming.
"People are really sick of the physical violence endured by police officers," said an officer who identified himself as David. "Even yesterday, some of our CRS [anti-riot police force] colleagues were hit by projectiles during the protest in Paris, and some of them were injured."
"Protesters aren't used to the way we work," he went on. "Some arrests can seem violent, but we are professionals, and we are used to doing this."
When quizzed about incidents involving injured protesters and police stun grenades, David explained that police officers merely follow orders and take no personal initiative.
As representatives of the main unions took turns speaking before the crowd, a video produced by Alliance was projected onto a giant screen.
The video showed images of masked protesters hurling rocks, firecrackers, and Molotov cocktails at officers accompanied by a dramatic soundtrack. This was followed by stills of vandalized streets strewn with trash and broken glass.
The video also included images from the November 2015 terror attacks in Paris, as well as of crowds cheering the police in the wake of the terror attacks that occurred in the city the previous January. "In the face of terrorism, we are the last defense," a message in the video read. "We pay the ultimate price: our lives."
On January 7, a police officer died trying to stop the Kouachi brothers as they fled the scene of the Charlie Hebdo shooting. Two days later, police officers freed hostages who were being held by gunman Amedy Coulibaly at a kosher supermarket in the Paris suburb of Vincennes.
A Parisian police officer who declined to give his real name and asked to be identified as "Alban" said that he hears daily reports of colleagues being injured in the line of duty, either during protests or while carrying out routine checks.
"The problem is the sense of impunity of offenders," he said. "For example, when a police station comes under attack, we're asked not to intervene — apparently to avoid clashes." Protesters, he added, rarely get in trouble with the law, and feel emboldened to attack officers.
According to the French Interior Ministry, the police have made 1,300 arrests since the start of the anti-labor reform protests. Of those arrested, 51 were immediately brought before a court.
As the square emptied itself around 1:30pm, many of the protesting police officers looked tired. New protests are scheduled for Thursday across France and in the capital, where demonstrators will gather on Place de la Nation at 2pm.
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