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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French govt faces new no-confidence vote over pensions row

France's government will face a no-confidence vote next week after a latest attempt to repeal an unpopular increase in the retirement age prompted left-wing opponents to announce the motion on Thursday.

French govt faces new no-confidence vote over pensions row

The pensions overhaul, a flagship measure of President Emmanuel Macron’s second and final term, lifted the retirement age to 64 from 62, sparking the country’s biggest protests in a generation.

The government has already survived multiple no-confidence votes over the pensions overhaul, even though Macron’s centrist party lost its overall majority in the lower-house National Assembly shortly after his re-election last year.

Facing the reform’s potential defeat in the Assembly, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne had invoked in March a controversial constitutional mechanism that passed the law without a vote.

Parliament’s speaker Yael Braun-Pivet on Wednesday said she would block on constitutional grounds a move by a small independent faction aimed at repealing the reform with new legislation, prompting the latest attempt to oust the government.

Mathilde Panot, a leading figure in the hard-left La France Insoumise (LFI)  party, told reporters that the leftist NUPES alliance submitted a no-confidence vote due to be examined early next week after the “anti-democratic” move.

The LIOT group that tabled the latest challenge to the pensions overhaul withdrew its text on Thursday, after the key article on repealing the retirement age rise was removed.

Panot said “discussions were still ongoing” with LIOT, which had not yet decided whether it would back the initiative.

The no-confidence motion appears to have scant chance of success because the right-wing Les Républicains party is unlikely to back it.

The far-right Rassemblement National (RN) party is also considering tabling a no-confidence motion.

“When a government allows itself to attack the workings of democracy to this extent, it deserves censure,” said its leader Marine Le Pen.

Panot said the NUPES coalition would “never abandon the fight” against the higher retirement age and would continue working towards its common goal of lowering the age to 60.

Thursday’s stormy parliamentary debate on the pension reform was interrupted when news broke of a mass stabbing attack in the Alpine town of Annecy, with MPs holding a minute’s silence in honour of the victims.