EXPLAINED: Why do French police love to use tear gas so much?

Along with freshly-baked baguettes and cigarette smoke, there is another smell that is common in French cities - the horrible, choking reek of tear gas. So why do French police use this so liberally?

EXPLAINED: Why do French police love to use tear gas so much?
Police fire tear gas at protesters in the Place de la Concorde, Paris, during pension protests. Photo by Alain JOCARD / AFP

If you’re reading media reports about French demos, it probably won’t be long before you come across the phrase le gaz lacrymogène (tear gas). Likewise if you’re walking down a French street near to where a protest is happening, it’s not uncommon to suddenly smell the reek of the gas – and if you’re really unlucky you might even be caught in a cloud of the choking chemical.

Tear gas is not a French invention of course, it’s part of the armoury of non-lethal weapons for police forces around the globe – but it does seem to be particularly common in France.

How often do police spray tear gas? 

According to French penal code, any police officer “responsible for public security or any other judicial police officer wearing the insignia of their position” is allowed to use force to disperse a gathering after two failed attempts of asking the crowd to disperse

However, officers can use force, including tear gas, without first asking the crowd to disperse in cases of “direct force or violence against police” or if the territory the police are defending has been “invaded” – in those circumstances using tear gas is the decision of the individual officer.

READ ALSO When are French police permitted to use tear gas?

French police do not publish data on their use of tear gas, so it’s not possible to say whether they use it more than officers in other countries, but anecdotal evidence and reports from voluntary organisations suggest that it is frequently used at demonstrations.

Amnesty International, in a report on the abusive use of tear gas, identified several instances in France that “do not comply with the requirements of international law and represent a threat to the right to demonstrate.” 

A protester holds a placard up to police, reading “Not all social problems can be resolved with tear gas” Photo by Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP

Frequent protests

Part of the reason for frequent use of the gas is the frequency of protests – France is a country where protest and general discontent goes quickly to the street.

Even outside of times of particular political tension, there are protests and demos most weekends in the big French cities, on subjects both domestic and international – for example on International Women’s Day or declaring solidarity with the people of Ukraine. 

At present France is in the grip of major discontent over the government’s planned pension reforms, which have seen 10 nationwide protests called by unions, with up to 1.2 million people taking part in demos across France on a single day. In addition to these big demos, recent days have seen smaller spontaneous gatherings in response the the latest developments in parliament.

Most demos are entirely peaceful and the vast majority of people who protest do so in a law-abiding manner.

However demos often attract a small, violent fringe – known as casseurs (hooligans) – or the more organised trouble-makers of the Black Bloc. They commonly smash shop windows and bus stops, set fire to street furniture and bins and generally try to cause havoc.

Violence goes both ways – a protester in Rennes (who has come prepared with a gas mask) throws a tear has grenade back at police. Photo by DAMIEN MEYER / AFP

Police response

Policing demos is a big part of the job of the French police and there is a special unit of police known as the CRS (Compagnies républicaines de sécurité) which is concerned with crowd-control and riot policing, although local police units also get involved in big demos.

Among the weapons at their disposal are tear gas, water cannons, guns that fire rubber bullets and ‘flash ball’ grenades. These last two are particularly controversial and were responsible for some terrible injuries during the ‘yellow vest’ protests, when demonstrators lost hands or feet to the grenades, while several people were partially blinded after getting a rubber bullet in the eye.

Policing tactics of course vary, but it’s common for police use tear gas first to try and disperse crowds, before moving on to other options.

Officers are frequently criticised for being ‘trigger happy’ with tear gas, using it before even trying other, non-violent, tactics to disperse a crowd.

During the chaotic scenes at the Champions League football final at the Stade de France in 2022, footage of police spraying tear gas into the faces of Liverpool fans caused shock in the UK. Although plenty in France also condemned policing of the match, there was less shock at the use of tear gas in such a situation, as many French people would not have been surprised at the police behaviour. 

Shortly after the Champions League final, another video went viral in France – this time of police using tear gas on people who were queuing for a replacement bus service at Gare de l’Est when trains were cancelled during a storm.

It should be pointed out, however, that violence on demos goes both way and hooligans often attack police officers – hundreds of officers were injured during the ‘yellow vest’ protests and throwing rocks, bottles and paving slabs at police is a common tactic of the small, violent minority.

Police violence

There is a growing conversation in France about police violence, and it usually involves two things; the policing of demos and the behaviour of French police towards people of colour and inhabitants of France’s poorest suburbs, who frequently report disproportionate rates of police stops and ID checks and violence from officers.

When it comes to demos, criticism has grown in recent days about the police response, especially in Paris, to days of small-scale demos and vandalism where protesters frequently set fire to piles or rubbish or wheelie bins and then move on. 

Protesters and opposition politicians have complained of mass arrests and ‘preventative arrests’ of people who had committed no crime – allegations that Paris police chief Laurent Nunez strongly denied in a TV interview on Wednesday.

However, criticism has been aimed at police within France for years, even decades, over police demo tactics.

How the ‘yellow vests’ forced France to have a conversation about police violence

French police have also been criticised by international organisations including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch for their public order policing techniques, especially over use of non-lethal weapons such as flash grenades and rubber bullets.

Despite that, little has changed.

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Man shot dead by police after knifing officer in Paris

A man has died after being shot by police when he injured a Paris officer with a knife, the state prosecution service said.

Man shot dead by police after knifing officer in Paris

Police said a terrorist motive was not suspected, but the violence added to tensions as Paris prepares to host the Games from July 26th.

Police shot the man after he wounded an officer near the Champs-Elysées avenue on Thursday evening, police sources told AFP.

Paris police chief Laurent Nunez said staff at a Louis Vuitton boutique had reported the man to be armed with a knife and had asked officers to intervene.

He said the man resisted and tried to flee, turning on the officers when they caught up with him and wounding one with the knife.

Nunez told reporters the officer was seriously injured to the neck but his life was not in danger.

He said there was no known “terrorist motive at this stage, and no link to the Olympic Games”.

A source in the préfecture said the attacker was a Senegalese national and was previously known to police.

A source in the prosecutors’ office later told AFP the man had died and added that a criminal investigation had been launched into the attack on the officer.

Near the scene of the attack, a bomb disposal truck and several police trucks were parked, an AFP journalist saw. Crime-scene tape encircled the entire area.

France is on high alert ahead of the Games with a huge security operation in the city centre ahead of next Friday’s opening ceremony.

On Wednesday evening, a motorist ploughed a car into a café terrace in northern Paris, killing one person and seriously injuring several others.

Prosecutors said the driver was committed for psychiatric treatment.

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On Monday, a soldier was stabbed in the back by a 40-year-old man at a major train station in northern Paris.

Officials said the soldier’s life was not in danger.

Thousands of security personnel locked down a six-kilometre stretch of central Paris on Thursday ahead of the Olympics opening ceremony.

Officials say 35,000 police officers and 18,000 soldiers will provide security for the Games.

More than 300,000 spectators are expected to watch the opening ceremony along the banks of the Seine.

It will be the first time a Summer Olympics has opened with a ceremony outside the main athletics stadium.

National anti-terrorism prosecutor Olivier Christen on Tuesday said the Games “are not the subject of specific targeting by international terrorist organisations”.

Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said on Wednesday there was “no credible threat” against the Games at this stage.