France riots: Man details attack by Marseille police that left him with disfigured head



A 22-year-old man who had to have part of his skull removed after he was attacked by Marseille police has spoken out about the scale of his injuries as an angry debate rages on in France over how to handle police brutality.

Hedi, an assistant restaurant manager in Marseille, was hit in the head by a police flash ball during protests in the city over the killing of Nahel M., a 17-year-old boy of Algerian background who was shot dead by police during a traffic stop in a Paris suburb in late June.

Nahel's death sparked mass unrest across French cities, with some of the worst violence seen in the southern city of Marseille.

In an interview with French video platform Konbini, Hedi says after he was struck in the head, several police officers cornered and attacked him.

He says the incident, which left him with serious head trauma, a broken jaw and damaged sight in his left eye, has left him unable to look in the mirror due to the sight of his disfigured head.

"Sometimes I think I'm going to wake up, but I always wake up with a deformed head, with these migraines, with this blurry eye. It's still hard to bear," he said.

Four police officers were charged of "voluntary violence" and suspended last week over Hedi's attack, with one of the officers remanded in custody before trial.

However, the officer's detention has triggered a new row, with police unions calling the decision to keep the Marseille officer in custody "incomprehensible."

Meanwhile, hundreds of police in the Bouches-du-Rhone administrative department where Marseille is located have taken sick leave in protest.

According to a local judicial source, the action has already led to the number of police referrals being "low or even historically low" for the city, with "70 or even 75 percent less activity."

France's national police chief Frederic Veaux also caused outrage this week by telling Le Parisien newspaper that no matter the crime, police officers should not be kept in pre-trial detention.

"In general, I believe that ahead of a possible trial a police officer should not be in prison, even if he may have committed serious faults or errors in the course of his work," he told the newspaper.

Veaux's remarks were widely perceived as a challenge to the independence of France's judiciary and have left President Emmanuel Macron's government treading a fine line between convincing the public that the police are not above the law, while not alienating the police agencies.

"Everyone needs to be confident that the state is there for our security forces, and that the security forces are there for the French people at each time we need them," government spokesperson Olivier Veran told a press conference on Wednesday.

Hedi's testimony

Hedi's interview, in which he gives a vivid description of his assault and the consequent trauma he now has to live with, has already been watched at least 3 million times on Twitter, triggering renewed anger from rights groups, parliamentarians and French citizens over police brutality in the country.

In the video, he explains that he and a friend had been in the center of Marseille – stressing that they had not taken part in the unrest – when they saw a group of police officers at the corner of a street.

"We said 'good evening'. We saw they didn't want to talk to us. Then it started," he said. "As I turned around, I was hit in the head. At the start I didn't know what it was, I fell to the ground.

"When I wanted to get up, they caught me and dragged me into a dark corner, then they started to hit me," he added.

"Then they started hitting me. One was lying on top of me, so I couldn't move. Some hit me with their fists, others hit me with truncheons."

He says at no point did anyone ask to see his papers or ask what he was doing there. "I tried to tell them that they can search me when I was on the ground, that I don't have anything dangerous. But they didn't want to know anything."

He said he was left on the ground bleeding and when he tried to touch his head, he could no longer feel his skull.

After he passed out, Marseille shop workers drove Hedi to a hospital where he fell into a coma. He would later undergo surgery where a significant part of his skull was removed.

He remains unable to see out of left eye and struggles to deal with the intense migraines his injuries have left him with.

"When you see a large metallic line, 65 staples on the head, when you see yourself swollen, when you see that your skull is no longer round, that it doesn't like before, it's very hard to handle," Hedi said.

He added that he still has no idea why he was attacked.

Mathilde Panot, the head of the parliamentary group of the left's La France Insoumise party, said Hedi's story was unbearable, tweeting: "I'm ashamed for my country."