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French pension protests: Brav-M, the special police unit accused of brutality

They ride in pairs, are armed with handguns, expandable batons and tear gas grenades, and have been specially trained to prevent protests from spiralling out of control. But since France’s pension protests began, officers belonging to France’s special Brav-M motorbike unit have increasingly been accused of taking the law into their own hands, intimidating and threatening people, and in some cases, resorting to the use of excessive force.

In the nearly 20-minute-long clip, police officers are heard humiliating and menacing a young man, who claims to be from Chad, telling him that if they see him on the streets again “you won’t be getting into a police van to go to the station, you will be getting into something else, called an ambulance, and go to hospital”.

Two slaps can also be heard in the audio.

According to the two media outlets that published the recording, the police officers heard speaking belong to the Motorised Brigades for the Repression of Violent Action (Brav-M) which has increasingly come under fire for its unorthodox and violent methods of dealing with protesters.

Paris police chief Laurent Nuñez immediately condemned the incident, calling the behaviour both “unacceptable” and unethical, telling French broadcaster France 5 that: “Like everyone else, I’m very shocked.”

Nuñez said the incident had been referred to the special police unit for internal investigations.

“The idea was to be able to intervene quickly [in places] larger units couldn’t get to” or to which regular officers were too heavily equipped to access fast enough, Patrick Lunel, a police commander who helped set the unit up, told the AFP news agency.

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Since then, Brav-M has grown into six units comprised of 18 so-called operators each and just as many motorbike drivers for a total of 92 “duos” . By the 2024 Paris Olympics, that number is set to rise to 150, according to Stéphane Boscariol, who heads the force.

The fact that they ride in pairs (one driver, and one operator who can immediately jump off the motorcycle to chase down a suspect), makes the unit much faster and more efficient than regular riot police forces (CRS) and gendarmes in vans and cars.

The Brav-M unit is deployed to Paris and its closest suburbs with the main task of containing demonstrations or dispersing them should they get out of hand, but also to intervene in situations of urban violence and vandalism and to support other police units should they encounter difficulties. Thanks to their agility, Brav-M officers can carry out arrests within crowds, which they then hand over to judiciary officers.

Each Brav-M officer is equipped with either a white (driver) or a black (operator) helmet, a bulletproof vest, a police radio and a body cam which is handed in at the end of each shift. But they are also armed, and carry SIG-Sauer handguns, expandable truncheons, hand-held tear gas grenades and blast balls. Each of the Brav-M’s six units also has four riot shields, a flash-ball gun and a grenade launcher.

Oussekine had been walking near a student protest when he was suddenly chased down by police and beaten to death in the entrance of a building. Oussekine had not been involved in the protest, and his death, which was witnessed by a civil servant, sparked outrage in France – especially since Oussekine had a history of health problems and therefore was an unlikely participant of demonstration violence – and led to the force being shut down.

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Since Brav-M was founded four years ago, some have likened it to the Voltigeurs force, but according to police, it would be “a mistake” to draw any similarities.

“We have people who are specialised in maintaining order, and are trained to do just that, who are on motorcycles and who intervene like paratroopers,” Jérôme Foucaud, a senior police officer, told AFP.

In the first incident, which was filmed, a Brav-M officer was accused of using excessive force after punching a man in the face while the man was lying on the ground. Nuñez called the act “improper”. Brav-M, however, claims the images that show the incident have been taken “badly out of context”, and that the man who was beaten was “drunk”.

In the second case, a woman claims to have been beaten by Brav-M officers in Paris’s central Châtelet neighbourhood – a day before the latest pension protest was held.

Nuñez, however, told French broadcaster Franceinfo on Saturday, that a dismantlement was “obviously not on the agenda”.

“The behaviour of a few individuals shouldn’t make a whole unit pay and which has in recent years, and particularly at the moment, proved its usefulness,” he said.

Nuñez insisted that the unit is “an indispensable unit for the maintenance of republican order”.