PARIS—President Emmanuel Macron rose to power on a platform of “neither right, nor left.” But now, after years straddling France’s political divide, he is facing a national crisis that demands he pick a side.
For weeks, tens of thousands of people have been marching in the streets to protest what they see as police brutality and racism after a video of police beating a Black music producer went viral. At the same time, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin —with the support of opinion polling, conservative lawmakers and legions of police officers—is pushing for a law to restrict people’s ability to post images of police online. The Senate is expected to vote on it early next year.
That has backed Mr. Macron into an uncomfortable corner. At a recent emergency meeting with Mr. Darmanin, a 38-year-old conservative firebrand, and other senior members of his cabinet, Mr. Macron was fuming.
“The situation you have put me in could have been avoided,” Mr. Macron, 42, told Mr. Darmanin, according to people familiar with the matter. Mr. Darmanin, they said, was unmoved.
For years, Mr. Macron has governed as a technocrat, rewriting France’s arcane labor code to reboot the economy and trying to fix the financial plumbing of the European Union.
On issues of law-and-order—including the long-standing tensions between police and Muslim minorities who live in the country’s working class banlieues—Mr. Macron has largely deferred to Mr. Darmanin and his predecessors at the Interior Ministry.
Mr. Macron’s modus operandi: Remain above the fray, declaring an opinion in one breath and then saying, “On the other hand…,” in the next.
That brand of politics, however, is unraveling. Mr. Macron’s party and cabinet have drifted to the right, and the president is finding he can no longer avoid the culture wars that have long torn at the seams of French society.
The shift became apparent this year as Mr. Macron’s party, Republic on the Move, lost numerous mayoral elections in June, including in Paris. Defections by left-leaning lawmakers followed, costing Mr. Macron his absolute majority in Parliament.
Then, in October, the president delivered a speech decrying what he called “Islamist separatism”—a movement, he said, that aimed to subvert the values of the French Republic, particularly the principle of strict secularism, known as laicïté. Two deadly terrorist attacks followed, including the beheading of a schoolteacher, as well as probes of mosques across the country. Critics in the Muslim world and in international media accused Mr. Macron of a rightward tilt that stigmatized French Muslims.
With leftist support slipping away, Mr. Macron sat down for an interview with Brut, a news website popular with young people. Mr. Macron defended aspects of Mr. Darmanin’s police-shielding legislation without saying if he supported restrictions on posting images of officers online.
“I share the same goal: Protect police officers. What I don’t want is to reduce any of our liberties to reach that goal,” Mr. Macron said.
Instead, he offered a technical critique of the bill’s provision, saying it did nothing to prevent images of police being published from servers in Belgium or Italy.
“Even if (the provision) had been what some wrote about it, it was at best ineffective, at best,” Mr. Macron said.
As Mr. Macron continues to hedge, however, Mr. Darmanin is turning up the pressure with the support of a restive national police force.
The appointment of Mr. Darmanin, in July, was controversial from the start. Mr. Darmanin is under investigation by French prosecutors for allegedly raping a woman in 2009—allegations he denies.
Mr. Darmanin was a former member of the conservative party Les Républicains with a history of directing barbs at Mr. Macron. “Far from being the remedy for an ill country, he will be its final poison,” Mr. Darmanin wrote of Mr. Macron just months before his election in 2017.
After the killing of George Floyd in the U.S. this spring, tens of thousands of people took to the streets in France to express outrage over Mr. Floyd’s fate and that of a Frenchman of African descent who died in police custody four years earlier. A report commissioned by the family of that man, Adama Traoré, concluded in June that he likely suffocated after police pinned him to the ground.
Mr. Macron tasked his interior minister at the time— Christophe Castaner, a close lieutenant—with overhauling police practices to address protesters’ concerns, according to French officials. Mr. Castaner responded with a plan to ban chokeholds—which apply pressure to the neck of a suspect—and to systematically suspend police officers suspected of racism.
The reaction from police, who had been pulling long hours to enforce France’s Covid-19 lockdown, was fierce. Police unions denied accusations of racism and staged a series of counterprotests. Some threw their handcuffs on the ground and called for Mr. Castaner’s resignation.
Frédéric Veaux, the director of France’s national police force, penned a letter to his forces, making it known that he felt their frustration with the Macron government. “I share with you this feeling of deep injustice,” Mr. Veaux wrote.
Mr. Macron shuffled his government, replacing Mr. Castaner with Mr. Darmanin, who met with police and blessed their proposal to make it mandatory for people publishing images or videos of police to blur officers’ faces. “I will make it my own,” he said.
In October, a group of lawmakers from Mr. Macron’s party submitted a new bill to Parliament aimed at improving coordination between the national police forces, local police and private security ahead of the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris. Mr. Darmanin worked with lawmakers to add a provision, Article 24, which outlawed the posting of photos and videos of police operations that include “the face or any other identifying element” of police officers with the goal of “physically or mentally” harming them.
In November, thousands of people, including journalists and human-rights groups, took to the streets to protest the bill, saying it would prevent people from filming and exposing police brutality. Several journalists covering the protests were struck by police, and at least two of them were detained for several hours, according to journalists’ unions.
On Nov. 27, the French news website Loopsider posted footage from a security camera inside the Paris music studio of Michel Zecler that showed three police officers punching and striking him with a baton. Mr. Zecler said one of the officers called him a “dirty n—” in French, while striking him, according to Mr. Zecler’s lawyer and Paris prosecutors who are probing the incident. The video also shows tear gas being deployed inside the music studio.
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Amid a public uproar over the footage, the Macron government announced it would revise Article 24 after it clears the Senate, without saying how. Mr. Darmanin, for his part, sat for a photo shoot and interview with Paris Match, France’s pre-eminent society magazine. The interior minister ended up gracing the cover, next to a quote: “I will not abandon police officers.”
Meanwhile, police unions were lambasting the president over comments he made to Brut about police practices. “It’s true that today when the color of your skin is not white, you are stopped much more,” Mr. Macron said.
Mr. Macron wrote to police union leader Yves Lefebvre to say he planned to organize a big meeting with police unions, mayors and citizens to discuss how to improve training and police resources. “I will be there personally,” he wrote.
Mr. Lefebvre accepted the invitation. Other police unions haven’t.
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