France's controversial new interior minister Gérald Darmanin has caused a stir by downplaying the term "police violence", telling MPs that hearing it made him "choke". The family of Cédric Chouviat, who died after he was pinned to the ground by police in a chokehold, are demanding an apology.
"When I hear the term 'police violence', personally I choke," said Gérald Darmanin, whose predecessor lost his job three weeks ago after becoming embroiled in a controversy over police use of the chokehold method used for apprehending suspects.
"The police do exercise violence, but legitimate violence," Darmanin told a committee in the National Assembly on Tuesday.
"They must do it in a proportional way, they must do it in a controlled way. If a few people do it outside the rules of professional ethics, the punishment must be immediate."
Darmanin's appointment to the interior earlier this month is proving controversial – particularly amongst feminist campaigners. They are demanding his resignation, as he is facing a renewed investigation into a 2009 rape allegation.
He denies any wrongdoing.
Darmanin's use of the word “choke” in relation to police violence was widely criticised by his opponents on social media.
It echoed the words of delivery driver Cédric Chouviat who, according to eye witnesses, shouted “I’m choking” seven times while he was held down by police officers in January this year.
He later died from asphyxiation in hospital. Three officers involved have been charged with manslaughter.
“The minister is sinking into denial and provocation with regard to victims. Sickening cynicism,” tweeted Bastien Lachaud, an MP with the hard left France Unbowed party.
“It’s a commonly used French expression. There was no ulterior motive,” Darminin’s entourage told AFP in his defence.
But his words shocked members of Chouviat’s family who have called on the minister to issue an apology.
"I don't understand how, as minister, he can make fun of the situation like that," said Doria Chouviat, speaking to France Info on Wednesday. "It shows a form of incredible cynicism and blatant nastiness."
“The words of the new interior minister, which cannot be accidental, have profoundly scandalised and hurt Cédric Chouviat’s family,” the family’s lawyers said in a statement.
“Everyone must measure what the interior minister’s disdainful and cynical words mean for families who’ve been bereaved or scarred through police violence.”
Police under pressure
The visit was designed to show solidarity with the force, after officer and police unions demanded greater support from the government and staged their own protest against a ban on chokeholds, with officers symbolically throwing their handcuffs down on the streets.
Police in France have had to contend with regular demonstrations by anti-government Yellow Vest groups opposing pension reforms, notably in 2019, and more recently people angry over perceived racism in France and among police ranks in particular.
On Tuesday, Darmanin called for recommendations around allegations of racist language from police officers to be implemented immediately, and for police officers who do commit unjustified violence to be punished immediately.