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ANALYSIS: How did France’s relationship with its own police get so bad?

I once lost the ignition key to a hire car. Stranded in a small Norman town, ten kilometres from home, writes John Lichfield. I knocked on the door of the local gendarmerie. A kindly gendarme drove me home.

ANALYSIS: How did France's relationship with its own police get so bad?
No justice, no peace - stop police violence, reads this banner. Photo: AFP

This column was first published in 2020 and has been republished after another apparent incidence of police violence, in which a man is reported to have lost a testicle after being hit by a police officer during a demo in Paris.

I later told my perfectly law-abiding neighbour what had happened. He was astonished.

“You did what?” he said. “And then he drove you home? Astonishing. I would never have thought of asking. People don’t go near gendarmes unless they have to…”

France has a police problem. It is not a new problem. For many years, it was a taboo subject. Now, abruptly, it is in the headlines and filling the endless bulletins of 24 hour news channels.

Police acted violently last month when clearing an illegal migrant camp in the heart of Paris (as they often do when clearing similar camps in more obscure places).

A few days later, disturbing footage showed three policemen beating and racially insulting a music producer for 15 minutes.

There are other victims of France’s “police problem”  –  the police themselves. There were 59 suicides in the Police Nationale last year, proportionally more than in any profession except farming.

There are some immediate causes for the present crisis, including a flurry of ill-considered recruitment of scarcely-trained officers after the terrorist attacks in 2015.

But there are also structural or cultural causes for France’s uneasy relationship with its police – and for the uneasy relationship of French police with France and with their own lives.

The police and gendarmeries are national forces. Whatever the abstract theory, they regard themselves, and are regarded by others, as protectors of the state and the government in power, rather than servants of the people. The criminologist Sebastian Roché describes the French police as “wired to be insulated from society and to respond only to the executive.”

The Police Nationale (in urban areas) and Gendarmerie (in rural areas and small towns) are frequently posted from other places and therefore divorced from local sympathy or experience. They are regarded by local people as more of an occupying force than a protective presence.

This is certainly true within the violent and troubled, multi-racial suburbs. It is also often true in country areas where  gendarmes live in fenced compounds of bungalows beside their stations, like so many rural Fort Apaches. 

There are cultural explanations for this divide between police and people (which is not exclusive to France but is more pronounced here). France, more than other developed countries, has a problem with public order. Politics goes rapidly to the street.

Successive French presidents and governments know that they need the police to protect them. They have therefore tended to protect and flatter the police (but not to fund or train them properly).

There is a cosy corporate relationship between the ministry of interior, police leadership and the multiplicity of police unions. As a consequence, the longer an office serves, the more he or she has a right to choose a posting. 

The most experienced flics can graduate to the cushiest jobs while the young and raw ones are thrust into the urban and banlieues frontlines.

Is there also a race problem with the French police? Clearly, yes. Much has been done to diversify recruitment in recent years but the filmed attack on the music producer Michel Zecler is not an isolated case.

In his recent book Flic, Valentin Gendrot, a journalist who spent two years undercover as a police officer, speaks of a large “racist” minority in the police.

“Nassim”, who spoke to France Culture in July after 37 years as a police officer, says racism is widespread. “People speak of a few black sheep.” he said “But I’d say it’s a whole flock of black sheep. That’s the reality.”

Surveys before recent elections have suggested that over 50 percent of both police and gendarmes vote for the far right nationwide, compared to less than 30 percent in the population as a whole.

In his book Valentin Gendrot blames poor recruitment and inadequate training. So did the interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, when questioned by a parliamentary committee last month.

To boost police numbers after the 2015 terrorist attacks, training was reduced from 12 months to 8. After three months, trainee officers are let loose on the streets with guns.

In theory, all police receive 12 hours top-up training a year – 12 hours! In 2019, Darmanin revealed, only one in five officers did that extra training.

Gendrot says that senior officers complain of  “low cost” policing. Anyone who has visited the dingy, tumble-down, local police commissariats in Paris will recognise his description.

“You constantly struggle with plumbing leaks, breaking down, poor equipment because of budget cuts…I’ve known officers spend their own money to buy torches or gloves.”

After more than two decades in France, I would say the police have advanced and improved in some ways but not all. Riot policing, though much criticised, is more restrained than it was 20 years ago (the non-lethal weapons that police use are another question).

Some – not all – of the younger generations of police and gendarmes are more professional and approachable than their arrogant, sometimes brutal predecessors.

But the central police problem remains. Darmanin, like most interior ministers, thought that it was in his interest to flatter and protect the police. Hence his attempt to criminalise “malicious” publication of images of the police on duty – a project now abandoned.

President Macron has now ordered him to present proposals to improve relations between police and public and to ensure that French police are “irreproachable”. Good luck with that.

Better training and more selective recruitment would help. So would more investment in basic police equipment (and much less on flash-balls and stun grenades).

But addressing the core issue – rewiring the police to be more responsive to the people, not just “le pouvoir” – will take a cultural revolution, not a hastily-concocted ragbag of reforms.   

Member comments

  1. Living here in a rural part of Perigord and all my interactions with the gendarmerie have been courteous, helpful, and positive. That said, I think there may be a personality type that occasionally self-selects into police work that is inclined to abuse power. It’s also possible that the everyday duties of police forces eventually produce a hardened cynicism with regard to the “policed.” It’s easy to understand the origins of that cynicism. A policeman sees the dirty work and the worst features of the human race at close quarters day in, day our. If that is your daily experience, it is all too easy to lapse into contempt for your charges. Training may be the answer that problem.

  2. It’s something of a consolation to know that these problems are not unique to us here in the U.S. I agree with the closing comments, in that the solution will take more than “band-aids.”

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ELECTIONS

Explained: The party manifestos for France’s snap elections

As the formal campaign period begins in France's snap legislative elections, here's a look at the manifestos of the main parties and what they mean for foreigners living here.

Explained: The party manifestos for France's snap elections

Monday marks the start of the official campaign period for France’s snap legislative elections – a brief two-week campaign before the first round of voting on Sunday, June 30th followed by round two a week later on July 7th. 

Here’s a look at the manifestos of the main parties, with a particular emphasis on any immigration policies that would affect the lives of foreigners in France, or those planning to move here some day.

Renaissance

First up is Emmanuel Macron’s centrist party Renaissance – its platform was unveiled by Macron himself in a televised press conference, with a more detailed programme unveiled later by prime minister Gabriel Attal.

The party is at a bit of a disadvantage when it comes to the programme, since its main policy goals are already known and it is limited by financial and other factors from announcing any especially bold new goals. The result was that Macron in his launch speech was left to talk about policies that had already been announced or vague goals such as holding a ‘national debate’ on France’s secularism policy.

Macron also framed the election as a ‘battle against extremism’ saying: “I hope that when the time comes, men and women of goodwill who will have been able to say no to the extremes will come together… to build a shared, sincere project that is useful to the country.” 

Programme – Much of the programme will be familiar since Macron was after all re-elected in 2022 and set out his five-year plan at the time. On the economy and the environment, the president said that his party would continue to grow foreign investment in France, cut unemployment and work towards the ‘green reindustrialisation’ of the country – a Macron pet project to create jobs and industry in France by embracing new green technologies such as car batteries.

He also re-committed to France’s domestic nuclear energy programme, and to France’s strong support for Ukraine.

Among the new parts were a ‘great national debate’ on the tricky subject of French state secularism (laïcité) and limits to access to screens for children – as recommended by a commission of experts.

Attal also unveiled some new measures on the key issue of the cost-of-living, with promises to triple the ‘Macron bonus’ paid to some employees from €3,000 a year to €10,000, index-linking pensions to inflation, reducing utility bills by 15 percent next winter and help for parents in buying school supplies.

He also proposes axing the notaire fee (in reality a kind of tax on home purchases) for any property purchased for under €250,000 and setting up an extra renovation fund to give grants to property-owners to repairs and energy works.

Some ongoing Macronist legislation such as changing the law on assisted dying has been interrupted on its journey through parliament, but would likely restart if the party wins a majority.

The party’s programme makes no specific suggestions for changes to the immigration system, but it did just introduce a new immigration law in January that – among other things – introduces a language test requirement for certain types of residency cards and raises the language level required for French citizenship through naturalisation.

Front Populaire

France’s largest leftist political parties have struck an election pact not to stand candidates against each other – in order to avoid dividing the leftist vote.

This means that the hard-left La France Insoumise will field 229 candidates, the centre-left Parti Socialiste will field 175, the Green EELV 92 and the Communists 50. It also means that the parties are presenting a single, joint manifesto under the banner of Nouveau Front Populaire – which has been the subject of much argument and some awkward compromises.

Programme – much of the programme is concerned with cancelling recent Macronist laws. Among the laws it says it will cancel are the new immigration bill – the one that introduces French language tests for certain types of residency card and raises the language level required for French citizenship.

The manifesto also proposes introducing a 10-year carte de séjour residency card ‘as the standard card’ – at present the standard model is for one-year cards initially and then move on to five-year and then 10-year cards, although there are significant variations based on your personal status (eg working, student, retired or family member).

Also set for the chop are Macron’s changes to unemployment benefits plus a cancellation of the price rises in electricity and gas and the reintroduction of the ‘wealth tax’ scrapped by Macron in 2018. Meanwhile the pension age would be dropped down to 60 (cancelling Macron’s law raising it from 62 to 64 and dropping it another two years).

The party would also raise the Smic (minimum wage) to €1,600 a month.

The environment forms a key part of the manifesto with a range of green incentives plus tax and financing rules that would clamp down on fossil fuels.

On foreign policy there are some delicately worded compromises since views on Ukraine and Gaza had previously split the leftist alliance. The group promises to “unfailingly defend the sovereignty and freedom of the Ukrainian people” including by delivering weapons and writing off debt. On Gaza, the party would recognise the Palestinian state and embargo arms supplies to Israel.

Policy towards the EU – a topic that divides the left – is left to one side.

Rassemblement National

The far-right Rassemblement National party will be joined by at least some candidates from the right-wing Les Republicains party, although the internal party divide over that pact will see some LR candidates independently. 

Programme – the party makes immigration one of its key concerns, with a commitment to “drastically reduce legal and illegal immigration and deport foreign criminals” listed as a priority.

The programme opposes both non-economic migration and family reunification – no detail is given on changes to the visa or residency card system in this area, but it seems likely that anyone wanting to move for non-work related reasons (eg retirees) would face restrictions. Likewise spouse visas would be affected by any changes to family reunification rules.

Non-French citizens would only be able to access social benefits such as housing benefits or caring allowances after working in France for five years and there would also be a ‘French first’ preference for access to employment and social housing.

Residency permits would be withdrawn for any non-French citizens who have been unemployed for more than one year.

Asylum claims would exclusively be processed outside France.

When it comes to French citizenship, the party wants to abolish the droit du sol, which gives the right to French citizenship to children born in France to foreign parents and limit access to citizenship for adults “on the basis of merit and assimilation” – it’s not clear how this would differ from the current system where candidates must already prove that they speak French and understand French culture and politics.

The party also has a strong line on law and order – doubling the number of magistrates, increasing fines for certain offences, adding those convicted of street harassment to the sex offenders’ register and creating a “presumption of legitimate defence” for police officers who kill or injure members of the public.

This article is part of a series on election platforms in France, we will look at each party’s economic platform in a separate piece. You can follow all the latest election news in our election section HERE, and you can also sign up here to receive our bi-weekly election breakdown during the campaign period

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