Trouble in the ranks as French police protest
PARIS: Blue flashing lights are a common sight for weary Parisians used to living under a state of emergency. The dozens of police cars on the Champs-Elysees this week were different. Blocking traffic on the famous avenue late on Monday, hundreds of officers and patrol vehicles gathered-not for a new anti-terror raid or, thankfully, in the aftermath of another attack-but to protest. “We’ve had enough!” one told AFP as a convoy of cars, bikes and officers covering their faces with balaclavas or masks, made their way noisily up the boulevard in a spontaneous demonstration.
Protests have continued and spread every night since, wrong-footing the Socialist government and highlighting anger in the ranks with the country on maximum alert. “Sick of being a sitting duck!” read one hand-written sign in the southern city of Toulouse this week. “Don’t forget us,” read another in Lyon in central France on Thursday night. The list of police complaints is long, covering everything from an ever-increasing workload, bureaucracy, outdated equipment and what is seen as lenient sentencing for violence against officers.
The frustration has been building for some time, fed by long-standing problems of delinquency in the country’s rundown suburbs but boosted by the sense of insecurity in France. The spark for this week’s demonstrations, organized by the rank-and-file rather than union leaders, was several petrol bombs thrown at officers in a known trouble spot outside Paris on October 8. A 28-year-old officer suffered serious burns and is still in a coma.
Prior to this, an off-duty officer and his partner were stabbed to death at their home northwest of Paris in June in an attack claimed afterwards by the Islamic State group. After the carnage in Nice in July, when an Islamist-inspired extremist killed 86 people with a truck, opposition politicians questioned whether police should have stopped him. In another blow to morale, during demonstrations against labor law reforms in the spring, officers were caught on camera kicking and hitting protesters with batons, leading to an outcry about brutality.
Loved or not?
“Police officers need recognition,” Prime Minister Manuel Valls said Thursday as he sought to contain the crisis, just six months from presidential elections. “They are loved by the French people, and not only since Charlie,” he added, referencing another dark moment for the men and women in blue over the last two years. The execution-style killing of a police officer during the raid by two extremists on the Charlie Hebdo magazine in January 2015 became one of the emblematic images of the tragedy.
It led to a rare outpouring of sympathy for police who are now more visible than ever around France as they guard buildings and sensitive sites under the state of emergency declared in November last year. Leading researcher and police expert Christian Mouhanna says the demonstrations stem from a mix of structural problems, politics and the heightened threat to France. Though police are generally respected-their bravery in last November’s attacks in Paris was widely hailed-they suffer from poor relations with communities in crime-ridden areas.
Local policing has been cut drastically since 2003, meaning officers are distant and seen as heavy-handed enforcers. They also miss out on local intelligence, critical for fighting crime and terrorism, he says. Over-centralization means the rank-and-file are unable to take their own decisions, while grumbling about tedious guard duty to reassure the nervous French public is on the rise. Also-and worryingly for the government-they see themselves as suffering from political failures higher up, from the violent demonstrations against labor reforms or clearing refugee camps in Paris and Calais on the north coast.
“They find themselves managing problems in an authoritarian way that haven’t been worked out differently,” said Mouhanna, who heads a unit specializing in the police and penal system at France’s national research institute, CNRS. The targeting of Francois Hollande so close to elections explains the president’s eagerness, as well as leading members of the government, to meet police unions in person and satisfy their demands. “You are asking for resources, we’ll give you them,” Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve wrote in a letter sent to police yesterday. —AFP