Why are the French police so brutal?

The cornerstone of the forces of order on the Seine is the reform made by the collaborationist Vichy government, which merged and centralised them. The system set up then still exists today.

When, after the battle between the forces of law and order and environmentalists on the last weekend of March, clouds of tear gas descended on the fields near Sainte-Soline and the wreckage of burnt-out gendarmerie vehicles caught up with them, the public found spectacular images in the media clearly associated with the traumatic episode of the 'yellow waistcoats'.

Despite the passage of a few years, we all have images in our minds of the demonstrations when, at the turn of 2018-19, Paris and many other major French cities were plunged into chaos reminiscent of a civil war every weekend. Demonstrations in the thousands, violence from the far left, barricades and buildings burning, shops and banks looted, and on the other side the retort of the forces of order.

A rather brutal retort, if the French Interior Ministry's figures of 12,000 detainees and 2,000 injured protesters and 1,500 police officers are to be believed. Other sources add to these figures several fatalities, including at least one hit by a police grenade, five severed hands, 29 gouged out eyes, 353 skull wounds and many other serious injuries. Several demonstrators lost an arm or an eye, such as Jérôme Rodrigues, one of the movement's leaders, whose bearded face with an eye patch became a memetic symbol of contestation.

Human rights organisations and even international institutions such as the European Parliament and the UN stated at the time that this level of violence against demonstrators was unprecedented and that the balance of injuries was out of the norm. This is true: violent repression is more the domain of dictatorships and totalitarian states than of mature democracies sensitive to human rights.

When juxtaposed with Poland, for example, these images and figures are impressive. Even the most brutal repressions against the miners' demonstrations, the securing of events with aggressive fans or the memorable pacifications of the Independence March were not so spectacular. The case of 'Nasz Dziennik' photojournalist Robert Sobkowicz, who lost an eye to a rubber bullet in 1999, is still remembered today, a quarter of a century later, while in France there are many such 'accidents at work'.

With these facts in mind, is it possible to conclude that the French police stand out for their particular brutality compared to other European police forces?

The left criticises, the right justifies

It has to be said that in France itself, opinions on the police vary. It would not be too much of a misrepresentation to say that the bourgeois-right part of the political scene principally defends the forces of order, while the popular-left part uncompromisingly attacks them.

There is nothing surprising about this on the whole. In the axiological system of the broad right, an essential value is order, which the police in theory defend, even at the price of minor misconduct, which is in principle acceptable, at least as long as those chips flying while chopping wood are not too conspicuous.

It was otherwise telling of this social group's shock and cognitive dissonance when they themselves came face-to-face with the brutality of the forces of law and order during the senseless and brutal repression directed against the many hundreds of thousands of peaceful demonstrations against the gay marriage law in 2013. Many young Versaillesians and elderly residents of Paris' 16th district, usually chanting "La Police avec nous!" ("Police with us!") then felt the taste of a baton on their backs for the first time in their lives and cried for the first time from tear gas.

In contrast, for the Left, often operating according to a Marxist key, the police are a symbol of the reactionary state, a chain dog of big capital and an instrument of oppression. Even the emergence of a new ideological theme on the Left in the form of immigrants as the 'erzatz' of the working class has not disrupted this thought pattern, quite the contrary. The left has smoothly incorporated accusations of racial profiling or systemic racism in the police into its iron catalogue of themes copied from American leftists.

This is, of course, quite an oversimplification, as it must be remembered that opinions about the police within society itself are complex and depend on many factors, such as the personal experience and point of view of individuals, as well as the political and social context. Therefore, it is important to consider an opinion that is averaged, statistical, as objective and data-driven as possible.

The problem is that scientific studies of the level of repression simply do not exist.

Sociological studies show that positive and negative attitudes of citizens towards the police in European countries follow a south-north axis.

Record satisfaction rates can be found in the Scandinavian countries, especially Denmark, where 80% of citizens think the police do a good job.

Globally, compared to their European neighbours Germany and England, the French have a more negative image of their police. A 2015 survey shows that more than 30% of French residents believe that the police rarely or very rarely refer to citizens with respect. Respondents from Greece, Portugal or Cyprus respond similarly, while in the UK and Germany the figure is less than 20%. More than 60% of French people accuse the police of a lack of fairness, compared to 40% in the UK and Germany.

"Crowd management"

However, this does not answer the question of whether the police there are actually particularly violent. It therefore remains to refer to hard data.

Before we start counting gouged-out eyes and severed limbs, let's take the simple statistics on arrests in France, Germany and Poland. These may vary from year to year and from one source to another, but they help to give a general overview of the situation.

In 2019, there were 1 781 278 cases of detention in police custody (garde à vue) in France, compared to around 753 000 in Germany and around 246 000 in Poland (in 2020). Even taking into account the difference in population, it is immediately apparent that in Poland a citizen is four times less likely to find himself behind bars for 48 hours than on the Seine.

Thus, greater repressiveness can be seen not only in the maintenance of public order, but also in the daily fight against crime. When you add in legitimising, arguably the basic activity of a police officer next to patrolling, the disparity is even greater. In France, there were 12.7 million cases of legitimation in 2019, in Germany 8.3 million, and in Poland a mere 1.5 million or almost five times less than in France, once the population is taken into account.
French police officers during anti-government protests in Paris in May 2016. Photo by NnoMan Cadoret / Anadolu Agency Supplier: PAP/Abaca
A French police officer legitimises a citizen five times more often and beats twice as hard? Why does this happen? For years, criminologists have put forward various hypotheses, not necessarily contradictory but often complementary.

Sociologists Fabien Jobard and Olivier Fillieule believe that the quasi-military methods used against the "yellow waistcoats" reproduce "on a one-to-one scale" the police model "typical of the late 19th century". "Zero tolerance from the moment of the call to disperse, in accordance with the 1848 law on assemblies, and the practice of intervening after the first clashes, even minor ones, by simultaneously letting small groups of officers into the demonstration where they can, in order to disperse the groups and carry out arrests of selected individuals."

The doctrine for maintaining public order in France is based on the principle of 'crowd management' ('gestion des foules'). The strategy of controlling large-scale demonstrations, rallies and public events aims to minimise the risk of violence and ensure the safety of participants, demonstrators, law enforcement and public and private property.

The police strategy is theoretically based on gradation, where the use of force is supposed to be proportional to the threat or aggression faced by the police or third parties. Police officers are to first use dialogue and negotiation techniques to resolve conflict situations before resorting to coercive measures. Above all, law enforcement officers must strive to remain calm and avoid violent confrontations with demonstrators, while guaranteeing the safety of persons and property.

So much for theory, but in the event of an escalation, 'crowd management' may include the use of physical control techniques and the use of indirect force or so-called non-lethal coercive measures, such as tear gas or water cannon, to deter demonstrators from committing acts of violence or disrupting public order, and as a last resort to disperse the crowd and prevent a riot.

TNT against the citizens

In line with the doctrine condoning the trivialisation of the use of force, the French police are equipped with means of direct coercion, the use of which against the population is unthinkable in other European countries.

The best example was the notorious GLI-F4 flash-bang grenade, responsible for dozens of serious wounds during the suppression of the 'yellow waistcoats' movement. It is referred to as a 'grenade de désencerclement' or grenade to break the encirclement. The logic of the confrontation, in which the demonstrators are implicitly considered to be a hostile force, is clearly evident here.

The grenade in question contains 26 grams of TNT. Until its use was discontinued in 2020, France was the only country in Europe allowing the use of explosives against its own citizens.

Its successor, the GM2L grenade used today, "the only one that Black Blocs run away from", according to police officers rich in experience from the recent battle with environmentalists demonstrating in Sainte-Soline, no longer contains explosives. This type of grenade is also used in Poland, but by the GROM special unit and not by the police.

Another controversial weapon used against demonstrators is the so-called LBD or hand-held tear gas grenade launcher. In theory, its use is subject to many restrictions - e.g. you can't aim at people, you have to shoot at least 10 metres away from groups of people, you can't aim at the torso or head etc. - but in practice there are serious injuries every year. It is the LBD launchers that are responsible for the gouged out eyes of the 'yellow waistcoats' demonstrators.

Since August, the Cougar and Chouka models used by law enforcement forces have been classified by the French Interior Ministry in the A2 category (war equipment), also in the manufacturer's catalogue for export customers they are listed precisely as weapons suitable for the military.

Over the years, the doctrine of 'crowd management' has evolved to reduce contact between the forces of law and order and demonstrators: the role of the police today is no longer to disperse demonstrations, but to contain violence by, for example, arresting troublemakers.

The advantage of this doctrine is its undoubted simplicity and assimilation of crowd psychology. The authors of the police strategy, which dates back to the mid-19th century, have supplemented it by reading Gustave Le Bon's classic work of the same title. Fabien Jobard, a researcher at the Mark Bloch Centre, argues that police schools teach that the crowd is one and indivisible, has animal impulses and obeys only its leader. Hence the salami tactics, the use of force, prophylactic policing or the detention of provocateurs.

At the same time, many historians argue that the police on the Seine are using similar methods to those of a century ago, and that the 'French exception' against the background of Europe is an illusion caused by the contrast with other countries whose police forces have undergone a profound evolution towards soft methods in recent years, while French doctrine has not changed.

European reform

The pioneers of this evolution are, as is often the case, the Germans. While the French study Le Bon's treatment of the crowd as an autonomous whole, German experts believe that the crowd is made up of individuals, and that all individuals have human dignity and reason to which they can be appealed to if only one knows how. Therefore, the new strategy means focusing the forces of order on small groups that can make a demonstration turn into a riot, and puts a priority on prevention, dialogue and mediation. A 1985 ruling of the German Constitutional Court even obliges this.

From the notorious 'Leberwursttaktik' or 'pâté tactics' of the 1960s (ride into the crowd with batons and make pâté out of it), the German forces of order have moved on to 'Deescalation' - no longer intervening in a repressive manner to restore order, but preventing disorder: there is a massive and deterrent presence of the forces of order, searches before demonstrations and very close surveillance during them.

Germany was followed by the rest of Europe. Between 2010 and 2013, on the initiative of Sweden, a project called GODIAC ('Good practice for dialogue and communications as strategic principles for policing political manifestations in Europe') was run to create a unified European doctrine for policing. Nine countries took part, including Scandinavian and Iberian countries, but also Austria, Germany and the UK.

The new tactics are to include preventative measures such as negotiating with protest organisers to establish routes and schedules, monitoring social media to anticipate gatherings, and erecting physical barriers to separate groups of protesters.

The outcome of this project was, among other things, the definition of a so-called KFCD model based on four pillars: knowledge of the protest groups, their goals, protest strategy and dynamics, facilitation and accompaniment of protests, communication before, during and after to clarify police strategies and interventions, and differentiation i.e. an individual approach to aggressive "rioters" to prevent the spread of illegal behaviour. Mediators were appointed for these purposes: "dialogue officers" in Sweden, "event police" in Denmark, "peace units" in the Netherlands, "liaison officers" in England etc.

Are these tactics effective? Looking at the riots on the occasion of the G7 summit in Genoa or in Hamburg, one can doubt. Moreover, although the police in Germany are less brutal than before, paradoxically the population, political activists and demonstrators there have a much stronger sense of repression than before.
Despite intense pressure from Swedish diplomacy, France did not participate in this programme, which has unofficially become a benchmark for the modern doctrine of policing in Europe. So maybe, just maybe, the police train towards liberalism, human rights and a bright future has departed and the French police force has been left at the stop of the law and order fetish?

The army is keeping order

Perhaps the explanation for the particular police brutality on the Seine should also be sought in France's long history and its identity as a state that used repressive methods against its citizens, particularly during the Revolution and the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte.

It should be noted, by the way, that the police as we know them today, especially the special units for maintaining public order, is a rather recent institution in French history. To put it simply, in the era of the ancien regime, the ruler entrusted this kind of thankless task to the army. During the French Revolution, the first formation with competences resembling those of a modern police force, the National Guard, appeared for a short time. The famous idealist Marquis La Fayette wanted to make it a 'national army', but after the Thermidorian Coup, it ended up firing cannons at sanculots (the most radical revolutionaries) in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine and quelling riots instigated by royalists and federalists.

After the Revolution came Bonaparte, who used, among other things, soldiers on leave to 'manage crowds' in order to circumvent the ban on the assembly of forces of order in the vicinity of government institutions, followed by successive monarchies and republics, one more repressive than the other towards its own peoples and citizens.

Under the Third Republic (1870-1940), as in previous periods, the military continued to be a key element in the arsenal of repression in the hands of the civilian authorities, and also when those authorities were leftist. The head of the Interior Ministry and two-time French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau (otherwise a left-liberal politician) boasted of being 'the first policeman in France' and often did not hesitate to send soldiers against strikers.

Using the military to maintain order, however, is risky. What worked in the pre-industrial revolution era did not work from the late 19th century onwards.

On the one hand, there was the threat of fraternisation of rank and file soldiers and non-commissioned officers with striking workers or demonstrating farmers, as in 1907 when the rebellious 17th Infantry Regiment turned its rifles butt upwards, refusing to shoot at protesting vineyard workers in Béziers. The army, on the other hand, is the risk of using on the home front means from an arsenal intended for the external enemy and shooting into crowds where a baton would have sufficed, as during the miners' demonstration in Fourmies in 1891, where nine people fell from bullets.

Vichy government centralises

It was only after the First World War that the French political class came to the conclusion that a special unit was necessary to maintain order in a situation of social turmoil and the emergence of increasingly violent dissenting currents, especially communist ones. Thus, in 1921, the Mobile Guard was created, not entirely civilian as it belonged to the gendarmerie, which in France is part of the armed forces. It was at the hands of its officers that demonstrators died on 6 February 1934 in the Place de la Concorde.

Paradoxically, the first police, or civilian, units to 'manage crowds' were the work of the Vichy government, when the armistice provisions with Germany (and in practice the surrender) forced the collaborationist French authorities to reduce the size of the Mobile Guard. During the Second World War and the German occupation, the Vichy government took state control of the local police forces, which had previously been subordinate to the municipal authorities, merging them with the 'Sûreté' (criminal service) and with units subordinate to the Paris prefecture. This created a state police force, and within it the Mobile Reserve Groups. SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE The Vichy government, not having to reckon with parliament, made the necessary reforms. The statification of the police, in keeping with the long-standing centralising nature of the state, took place in August 1941, a very specific context of foreign occupation and quasi-civil war, when the priority was to protect the state rather than to serve the public. Local police or municipal guards were transformed into state service units, taking them completely out of the control of local authorities and placing them under the authority of prefects: representatives of the government.

The recruitment and careers of police officers, which used to be essentially local, have become statewide: officers are assigned on an as-needed basis to police stations throughout the country, regardless of their region of origin, so that most police officers are not tied to the community in which they work.

Since seniority determines the possibility of being transferred to another region, the least experienced junior officers are assigned to the most difficult areas, from where they flee as soon as they have worked enough. It is estimated that in the Paris region, which has a reputation for being the most difficult, a third of staff are transferred every year, which is obviously not conducive to familiarity with the local population and specifics.

The Vichy reform is still a cornerstone of the modern French police force. The criminologist Xavier Raufer notes curiously that the map of the locations of police stations drawn up at the time has hardly changed to this day.

After 1944, the Vichy police were not abolished, but only transformed the units for suppressing demonstrations into the Republican Security Companies, the notorious CRS, which still exist today. The changes were not helped by the turbulence of history. The tensions after the liberation of the country, then the Cold War, followed by decolonisation, the Algerian War, the trauma caused by the events of May 1968 and the contemporary urban revolts, as in 2005 in red-hot immigrant suburbs, and the rise of Islamic radicalism have prompted and are prompting the maintenance of a strong repressive apparatus in order not to weaken the state.

For many French people, therefore, the brutality of police repression is to some extent justified: although image-damaging, it is necessary from the point of view of the raison d'état.

– Adam Gwiazda
– Translated by Tomasz Krzyżanowski

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

Main photo: French police officers during anti-government protests in Paris in May 2016. Photo by NnoMan Cadoret / Anadolu Agency Supplier: PAP/Abaca
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