Video Assault Thrusts Michel Zecler, and French Police, Into Spotlight

PARIS — Without the video, Michel Zecler believes his case would have been reduced, at most, to a brief news item.

Maybe something like this: “A young man, Black, wearing a sweatshirt and a hood, a shoulder bag, assaulted police officers, attempted to seize their weapons,” Mr. Zecler said in an interview on Thursday.

“If I didn’t have my cameras, I’d be in prison today,” he added, referring to the security cameras in the vestibule of the building where he keeps his music studio.

The footage from those cameras, showing police officers gratuitously beating Mr. Zecler, 41, a producer well known in the world of French rap, has instead helped fuel a political crisis in France and once again turned a spotlight on the issue of police brutality, especially against the country’s minority citizens.

“What shocks me most is not that there are racist elements in the police,” Mr. Zecler said. “What amazes me is that they felt confident enough to go that far, in their actions, in their words.”

Mr. Zecler spoke with The New York Times in his studio, his first extensive interview since he became the focus of a national uproar that has forced President Emmanuel Macron’s government to scrap and rewrite part of a security bill that would have restricted the filming of police.

During the two-hour interview, Mr. Zecler cradled his damaged left arm and sometimes grimaced in pain. He had just returned from one of his many visits to the hospital for the multiple injuries he suffered, including a torn tendon in his arm, a head wound and bruises over his face and body. On Friday, he was due for an operation to repair the tendon.

Credit…Michel Zecler/Gs Group, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Critics say a provision in the security bill was aimed at snuffing out precisely the kinds of cellphone videos of the police roughing up demonstrators that have brought them under intense new scrutiny.

The video of Mr. Zecler’s beating was posted on social media on Nov. 26 by a French online news site, Loopsider, something that may have been rendered illegal had the law gone through.

But, rather than a distorted version of his assault appearing in a brief news item, the image of Mr. Zecler’s badly pummeled and bloodied face was seen all over France.

In an interview Friday with Brut, a news site popular among the young, Mr. Macron said that there was “nothing to excuse, to justify’’ the beating. The contested provision in his security bill, which was part of a concerted political shift aimed at fortifying the president’s right flank from nationalist challengers, was torpedoed.

The impact was such that some are now drawing parallels with the clip showing the killing in the United States of George Floyd, which sparked protests over racism and police brutality across the globe, including in French cities.

Mr. Zecler said he still had trouble sleeping. His mind kept returning to the assault, he said, focusing on “the look of the police officers, the hatred” in their eyes and the racial slur they used against him, “dirty” with the N-word.

He was held for two days in police custody, but the video quickly led to his release, contradicting the initial testimony of the three police officers.

According to the Paris prosecutor, the officers, who denied using a racial slur, said Mr. Zecler had drawn their attention because he was not wearing a mask and because he smelled strongly of marijuana. They accused him of pulling them by force into the studio, of inflicting violence against them and of resisting arrest.

The video, and Mr. Zecler, tell a different story.

On the evening of Nov. 21, Mr. Zecler — who said he had forgotten to wear a mask, which is required under pandemic guidelines — said he was walking to the entrance of his studio, Black Gold, in the 17th arrondissement, a wealthy neighborhood in Paris.

The video then shows three police officers bursting into the studio’s entrance without, Mr. Zecler said, any verbal warning. Mr. Zecler, who said he repeatedly told the officers that he was in his own business premises and asked why they were inside, said he wasn’t even certain whether they were real police officers at first.

According to the video, the officers, unable to pull him outside, closed the door behind them. Then inside the cramped entrance area, they are seen beating him — for a total of six minutes, according to the Paris prosecutor.

The video shows the officers repeatedly punching and kicking Mr. Zecler, and hitting him with a baton, even as he took the blows without retaliating.

Though there have been high-profile cases involving police brutality against Blacks and Arabs in recent years, it is difficult to get a precise measure of the problem because it is illegal to keep data on race in France.

But a rare official investigation by the Defender of Rights, an independent official body, in 2017 found that young men perceived as Black or Arab were 20 times more likely to have their identities checked. Some 80 percent reported having been subjected to at least one check in the previous five years, compared with only 16 percent of the rest of the population.

Mr. Macron, in the interview with Brut on Friday, acknowledged that “today, when your skin color is not white, you’re checked more often,’’ adding that such a fact was “unbearable.”

Since the video was made public, Mr. Zecler, a man used to discretion, said he has been bewildered by the storm he has been thrust into, and was wary of being exploited politically.

He has received widespread support from ordinary people, political leaders and celebrities, including the world’s most popular Francophone singer, Aya Nakamura, who tweeted, “Thank you to the cameras and courage to Michel.”

But some media on the extreme right — including those courted aggressively by Mr. Macron — have attacked his credibility by emphasizing a criminal record from his youth.

Mr. Zecler’s shoulder bag contained a small amount of marijuana, 0.5 grams, according to the prosecutor. Mr. Zecler said he did not smoke and that the marijuana had been left behind in his studio by one of his artists.

Charges against Mr. Zecler were dropped after the authorities examined the security camera footage, and the officers are now under investigation.

Though cleared, Mr. Zecler said he wanted to understand why he was targeted.

“I need to know,” he said, wondering whether it was because they saw “a Black man who seemed to come from a working-class district in this particularly well-off district of the 17th” arrondissement.

The beating took place, it turned out, half a day after he and his business partner, Valérie Atlan, uploaded a new music video with an anti-violence theme and a message of “love is stronger than hate.’’

After spending the first few years of his life in Martinique, a French island in the Caribbean, Mr. Zecler grew up with his mother and younger brother in low-rent housing in Bagneux, a banlieue, or suburb, of Paris. His mother, a health care assistant, often worked nights, and the family was always short of money.

Perhaps because they were newcomers and because he was Black, his mother always told him to be discreet, Mr. Zecler said.

“Don’t get yourself noticed,” his mother told him often. “We’re very discreet.”

The advice has stayed with him. “If we’re invited to a party, I won’t stand up to go eat, never the first one,” he said.

But in his teens, drawn by the easy money that some of his peers appeared to be making in Bagneux, he committed armed robberies, he said, entering prison when he was 17 and coming out when he was 24.

Some in the world of rap music might have worn the time in prison as a badge of honor. But he said he never talked about it, feeling “shame.” Seventeen years after getting out of prison, he wanted to focus on the company he had built and the success he had earned.

“I left Bagneux and made it to the 17th,” he said. “I’m proud.”

Olivier Cachin, a journalist specializing in the genre, said Mr. Zecler was “very well respected in the world of rap. He’s one of those men in the shadows. It’s not somebody whose face appears in the newspapers.”

Having successfully rebuilt his life, Mr. Zecler said he believed in justice and did not want to lose faith in it because of the beating. He didn’t want the young artists who record with him to be filled with hate. He counted police officers among his friends and said he knew there were many good ones in the force.

“That’s very important,” he said. “Some elements certainly need to be fixed. But we can’t talk about everyone in one sentence.”

Antonella Francini contributed research.

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