PARIS — “I’m suffocating.”
Those are the words Cédric Chouviat called out seven times as police officers in Paris pinned him to the ground and put him in a chokehold, according to footage analyzed in an internal police report from April but revealed by French news outlets this week.
The videos of Mr. Chouviat, who later went into cardiac arrest and died on Jan. 5, have reignited scrutiny of the heavy handed tactics used by French police. Now, his family members are demanding answers from French authorities.
“France is not the United States, but France is getting closer to the United States,” William Bourdon, a lawyer for Mr. Chouviat’s family, said at a news conference in Paris on Tuesday, citing the “persistence of police violence” and the “logic of denial” by authorities after incidents involving police brutality.
Members of Mr. Chouviat’s family had gathered to draw attention to his case and push for a nationwide ban on police chokeholds and officers pinning people to the ground during arrests.
Mr. Chouviat’s case has resurfaced as France is experiencing widespread protests against police brutality, particularly against black people and other minorities, fueled by George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis last month. The incidents have also forced heightened scrutiny of tactics used by French officers to make arrests.
Mr. Chouviat, a white 42-year-old deliveryman, was stopped by the police near the Eiffel Tower on Jan. 3, and soon went into cardiac arrest and was brought to the hospital. He died two days later, and an autopsy showed he had a broken larynx, according to the Paris prosecutor’s office, which opened a manslaughter investigation that same month.
Christophe Castaner, the interior minister, said after meeting with Mr. Chouviat’s family in January that there were “legitimate questions” in the case that needed answers. But the four officers involved in the arrest, who have not been publicly identified, were not questioned about the incident until last week and have not been suspended or charged with any crimes.
Bystanders had only filmed part of the arrest from a distance, leaving much of how the incident unfolded unclear until the new footage offered additional insights.
On Monday, Le Monde newspaper and Mediapart, an investigative news site, both reported details of the videos in which Mr. Chouviat can be heard saying “I’m suffocating” seven times over a roughly 20-second period as the officers arrested him.
Citing thirteen different videos filmed by Mr. Chouviat, by a bystander and by one of the officers during the arrest, as well as police transcripts, both outlets reported that his arrest came after a heated, 12-minute exchange peppered with insults.
It is still unclear why the police initially stopped Mr. Chouviat shortly before 10 a.m. on Jan. 3, on the Quai Branly, not far from the Eiffel Tower. Mr. Chouviat, who lived with his wife and five children in Levallois-Perret, a northwestern suburb of Paris, used a scooter for his deliveries.
In the videos, Mr. Chouviat, who appears frustrated with the police stop, can be heard calling the officers “clowns,” mocking their physical appearance, and telling them that “without your uniform, in the street you are nothing at all,” according to both Le Monde and Mediapart.
The officers insult and mock him in return, and one threatens to arrest him for insulting them, a punishable offense under French law. The officers appear irritated that Mr. Chouviat is recording the interaction and one of them shoves him several times.
Both the officers and Mr. Chouviat repeatedly ask each other not to get too close, but the videos never show a clear threat of violence on Mr. Chouviat’s part, according to the news outlets.
Finally, the officers decide to arrest him. The police officers later told internal investigators that they used a chokehold and that three officers then pinned Mr. Chouviat, who was still wearing his helmet, to the ground, according to Mediapart.
The investigators transcribing the videos only seem to hear, not see, what happens during the arrest, and the sound of handcuffs being put on is clearly evident.
Then, Mr. Chouviat can be heard saying “Stop,” “I’m stopping,” and he repeats “I’m suffocating” seven times. Within five minutes, he is unconscious, and police officers unsuccessfully try to administer CPR before an ambulance transports Mr. Chouviat away to the hospital.
Laurent-Franck Lienard, a lawyer for two of the officers, told BFM TV on Tuesday morning that “obviously they did not hear him say ‘I’m suffocating’” because he was still wearing a helmet during the arrest and was speaking into a hands-free microphone.
Thibault de Montbrial, a lawyer for the other two officers, told the Agence France-Presse on Tuesday that his clients had not heard the pleas either. When the officers were confronted with the recording during their questioning last week, he said, they were “surprised and devastated.”
Sofia Chouviat, Mr. Chouviat’s daughter, said of the police officers during Tuesday’s news conference, “We don’t understand why they still haven’t been suspended.”
Mr. Castaner, the interior minister, had announced earlier this month that chokeholds would be banned and that officers would no longer be allowed to press on a suspect’s neck, although they could continue to forcefully grab suspects from behind and force them to the ground if necessary.
But French police angrily pushed back against the chokehold ban, and although authorities confirmed the technique would no longer be taught in police academies, officers are still allowed to use it in the field until September, when an alternative method for arresting violent suspects is supposed to be unveiled.
The demand for police accountability spurred on by the protests in the United States has also brought new attention to the case of Adama Traoré, a 24-year-old black man who died in 2016 after being arrested by three police officers. One of the officers later acknowledged that the three had placed “the weight of all of our bodies” on him. No charges have ever been filed in that case, despite four years of investigations and dueling autopsies over the cause of his death.
The French police’s internal affairs investigative departments have increasingly come under fire in cases like the deaths of Mr. Chouviat and Mr. Traoré. Critics say that the departments, which are often the first to look into allegations of police violence, are too lenient with officers and cover up cases of brutality.
“We need, in this country, an independent ability to investigate these facts,” Yannick Jadot, the head of France’s Green party, told RTL radio on Tuesday.
Police violence has been hotly-debated in France since the Yellow Vest crisis last year. On Tuesday, a court in the eastern city of Strasbourg gave a police officer an 18-month suspended prison sentence for hitting a 62-year-old woman with a baton during one Yellow Vest march in January, when the demonstrations regularly led to violent clashes between protesters and the police.