French lawmakers on Tuesday began debating a bill that could ban dissemination of images of police officers' faces, triggering protests in Paris and other French cities against the potential loss of a check against abuses of power.
France's security forces have long faced accusations of using brutal tactics when dealing with protesters, but also when confronting or arresting individuals, in particular from black or Arab minorities.
A series of incidents caught on video and spread on social media have spurred calls for reform, which gained momentum this year with the "Black Lives Matter" movement in the US following the death of George Floyd.
But police say they are increasingly under personal threat as they struggle to carry out President Emmanuel Macron's promise to reduce crime and insecurity, especially in the poorer suburbs surrounding Paris and other cities.
An attack on a police station outside Paris last month by dozens of people armed with fireworks and steel bars galvanised the government to pass concrete measures protecting officers and improve working conditions.
A new "comprehensive security" law from Macron's centrist government proposes reforms such as giving more autonomy to local police -- and potentially arming more of them -- and expanding the use of surveillance drones in high-crime areas.
But last month, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin supported a measure long sought by police unions, making it a crime to show images of an officer's face unless it has been blurred.
Publication on social media or elsewhere with the intent of undermining an officer's "physical or psychological integrity" could be punished by a year in prison or fines of up to 45,000 euros ($53,000).
- 'War of images' -
Darmanin said the measure would "protect those who are protecting us", especially in poorer neighbourhoods where tensions often run high between law enforcement and immigrant communities.
The bill's co-author Jean-Michel Fauvergue, a former head of France's elite RAID police unit, rejected claims that police were getting new protections from criticism.
"In no way does this stop journalists from working," Fauvergue said at a press conference on Tuesday.
He said the law would only punish publication of an officer's face "with messages calling for hate or violence".
But protests took place in Paris, Bordeaux and other French cities after journalists unions and human rights organisations warned of risks in the new bill.
In Paris, police fired water cannon and tear gas near the National Assembly, the parliament, when a number of young protesters started damaging property toward the end of a rally that had been peaceful.
Journalists and rights activists say the stricter rules would effectively work as a "gag law" similar to a measure in force in Spain since 2015, that would hinder attempts to hold police accountable.
The UN Human Rights Council warned that the proposal "could discourage, even punish those who could supply elements of potential human rights violations by law enforcement, and provide a sort of immunity".
Critics point in particular to the hundreds of violence complaints filed against officers during the "yellow vest" anti-government rallies that erupted in 2018, which saw fierce clashes between protesters and police that made headlines worldwide.
In July, three officers were charged with manslaughter over the death of a delivery man, Cedric Chouviat, who was filmed by bystanders as officers had him in a chokehold after his arrest for a traffic offence in Paris.
Chouviat said "I'm suffocating" seven times before his body went limp.
"Black Lives Matter" also fuelled mass protests this summer against alleged police violence in France, particularly over the 2016 death in custody of a 24-year-old black man, Adama Traore.
France's human rights auditor has also warned of "considerable risks" from the new law.
"The publication of images regarding police interventions are legitimate and necessary for a democracy to function," said the auditor.