Cedric Chouviat died after he was pinned down by police in Paris.
Paris CNN  — 

“J’etouffe!” It’s French, for “I’m suffocating” or “I can’t breathe,” and it was repeated seven times by a man in January as he was being pinned down by three police officers and as another filmed, near the Eiffel Tower in Paris. They would be Cedric Chouviat’s last words. The 42-year-old deliveryman and father of five died in a hospital two days later; his autopsy revealing a broken larynx, according to the prosecutor in the case.

The similarities with the case of George Floyd – a Black American killed during a police arrest in the US city of Minneapolis – don’t end there. Chouviat’s arrest, also captured on video, would, like Floyd’s, become the focus of a wider campaign against police brutality. And as in the Floyd case, action against the officers would seem painfully slow in coming.

But six months after the death of Chouviat, who was of North African heritage, three of the police officers involved have now been placed under formal investigation, lawyers for the Chouviat family told CNN on Thursday. This, after audio of the incident – captured by Chouviat’s own phone – was submitted to the investigating judge. The transcript of the recording, seen by CNN, shows that Chouviat repeated the words “j’etouffe” seven times. A lawyer for two of the police officers says his clients never heard the words as Chouviat was still wearing his motorcycle helmet at the time. All four officers deny any wrongdoing.  

The case is one of two that have cast a harsh light on alleged police brutality in France and on the apparent impunity, some say, with which accusations of it are all too often met. Another, involving the death in police custody of Adama Traoré in a Paris suburb in 2016, has also seen fresh developments, with the testimony of two witnesses heard as part of the investigation last week.

But four years after the 24-year-old Black man died, no charges have been brought against the officers involved. Their lawyers point to a medical assessment that blames Traoré’s death on a pre-existing condition that his family says he didn’t have.

Cedric Chouviat's widow Doria and her children take part in a march in Levallois, near Paris, on January 12, 2020.

What the two cases have highlighted is the difficulty that families of victims face in getting allegations of police brutality properly and swiftly investigated. According to William Bourdon, a lawyer for Chouviat’s family, France “is getting more like the United States by the persistence of police brutality and by the denial that goes with it.”

A spokesperson for the Paris police service declined to comment to CNN.

Both cases have also led to calls for a change in policing techniques. In the Traoré case, the officers used a controversial technique that involves pinning a suspect to the ground on his stomach. In Chouviat’s case, the allegations center on the use of the chokehold. Last month, under pressure from police unions, plans to ban the technique were shelved by France’s then-Interior Minister Christophe Castaner. That he had even considered the move proved unpopular with the police, who held  several protests in June against him. On Monday He was replaced as interior minister on July 6 as part of a wider government reshuffle. 

A person holds a portrait of late Adama Traore during a march in Beaumont-sur-Oise, northeast of Paris in 2018 calling for answers in the case.

Like in the US, there is a culture of resistance in the police force to investigating fellow officers, as well as a resistance on the part of strong police unions to attempts at reform.

All the more so because of its role over the last few years in France in helping the government to put down yellow vest protests by bringing order to the streets of France once again. Some campaigners say the police have simply become too powerful.  “I think that the outrage, the anger and sometimes the violence is fueled by this systematic rejection of any allegation,” said Cecile Coudriou, president of Amnesty International in France.

“And the more the authorities stick to this rejection of any allegation, the more they try to refuse dialogue, including with us, with people who work based on the evidence, the worse it gets because it means people lose confidence in the authorities and lose confidence in the people who are supposed to not only to enforce the law but also to protect the people.”

Lack of data about race or ethnicity

Another difficulty, and one that is specific to France, is the impossibility of quantifying racist incidents. France’s public institutions do not collect any or data on race or ethnicity, in a laudable effort aimed at treating all citizens equally.

But this law has led to a lack of data, making it difficult for non-White French people to make White French people aware of the very different reality they face. As Rhoda Tchokokam, the co-writer of “Le Dérangeur” a book about the race issue in France, puts it, “people are telling you that because of race, because of religion, because of gender, they’re being discriminated against.”

“If you cannot face it, then you are basically saying to the people of your country that you don’t see them and that you don’t care about them. So it’s very important for the French state to understand that we are going to keep talking about it. And they need to start doing the same thing.”

All the more so, say activists, because while the French state may not see color, the police apparently do. Non-White French people say they are subjected to identity checks far more than White people. Ben Achour, a lawyer who specializes in police brutality and discrimination, said the checks are being misused.

Doria Chouviat, center, the widow of Cedric Chouviat, speaks during a press conference in Paris, on June 23, 2020.
People gather in Toulouse on January 8 to demand justice for Cedric Chouviat.

“What the police does,” Ben Achour said, “is rather than chase delinquents, they check to see if you are really French. And that allows also the frisking, the violence, the insults, and the racist slurs. That’s the condition of life of a lot of kids in France. They are subjected to those kinds of actions several times a week. How can they develop self-esteem? How can they trust the republic? How can you not challenge the republic when one of the first institution you are in contact with when you are 10, 11, 12, 13 years old, is violent towards you?”

Until now, because of the data law, the problem has been impossible to quantify and the evidence was purely anecdotal. But last month a report by France’s civil liberties ombudsman, former justice minister Jacques Toubon, warned that people of Black and Arab appearance were subject to police identity checks 20 times more frequently than White people. 

For Achour, this first recognition of the problem by a French institution is a huge step. He told CNN that what Toubon had found was “major systemic structural discrimination in France. And he says we need to count it. We need to measure this discrimination. You cannot fight discrimination, you cannot create policies if you don’t have a measure because otherwise the problem doesn’t exist. And this is why the moment is very important. We now have momentum in France.”

That momentum has been helped by events in the United States. The death of George Floyd and America’s national reckoning have given fresh hope to supporters of both the Chouviat and Traoré families with several protests held these last few weeks in France. Their “Black Lives Matter” slogan may have been imported, but they have been fueled by cases and by grievances that are entirely French.

CNN’s Barbara Wojazer contributed to this report.