In the restive port city of Marseille, police fear that the release of four people arrested for allegedly attacking officers during an ID check on a woman wearing an Islamic veil will undermine their fight against violent crime in the city.
Marseille police say three of its officers were injured in the early hours of July 25 when a mob of some 50 people tried to prevent them from checking the identity of a woman who was wearing a full Islamic veil.
Under a controversial law passed in 2010, wearing a full veil or covering one’s face in a public place is illegal in France and offenders must submit to ID checks.
According to the police, the woman was stopped just after midnight near a city mosque and refused to cooperate with the officers.
A man accompanying her as well as a large group of bystanders came to her aid and three officers were “lightly injured” in a scuffle.
After police reinforcements arrived, four people, including the 18-year-old woman named only as “Louise-Marie”, were arrested for allegedly assaulting the officers—but were promptly released with a warning on the orders of the city prosecutor.
According to an AFP source, the decision was “a gesture of appeasement during the holy [Islamic] month of Ramadan.”
“What kind of message does this send out?” asked David-Olivier Reverdy, head of the Alliance police union. “We are absolutely astonished.”
He told FRANCE 24 the prosecutor’s decision would have “heavy consequences” in a city where “gun crime and ultra-violence is common” and where relations between city residents and local law enforcement are “particularly tense”.
“The prosecutor has given carte blanche to criminals in Marseille,” he said. “The message is that they can behave with impunity. It is extremely worrying.”
FRANCE 24 contacted the Marseille prosecutor but he was unavailable to comment when this article was published.
Marseille has a long history of criminality associated with its status as a port city.
Particularly worrying for law enforcement authorities has been the proliferation of firearms which has given Marseille the dubious distinction of being the Kalashnikov capital of France.
The police have been fighting back, and in the first five months of 2012 seized 261 firearms in the city, compared to a total of 309 for the whole of 2011.
Reverdy said the efforts had reduced the number of armed robberies in the city by 25%—a reduction of around 100 in the first half of 2012.
‘The law of the Republic’
He told FRANCE 24 that he and his fellow officer believed leniency after an alleged attack on policemen risked undermining recent progress.
“It is the law of the Republic [that ID checks are made on people wearing veils] and whether we like it or not we have to be seen to be enforcing it,” he said.
Reverdy’s feelings were backed up by Marseille’s deputy mayor Nora Présozi.
“If we want to avoid an explosive situation the police must be allowed to apply the law,” she told weekly news magazine Le Point. “Every citizen is obliged to submit to identity checks when required, as was the case in this disgraceful incident.”
The 2010 law, which came into effect in April 2011, bans the wearing of any garment that prevents easy identification of an individual by police in a public place.
As well as ski masks and balaclavas, the law also applies to Islamic “niqab” and “burka” veils.
Refusal to remove veils in public or to comply with ID checks is punishable by a 150 euro fine, while people who force others to cover their faces in public face fines of 30,000 euros and a year in prison.