Trou­ble in the ranks as French po­lice protest

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

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

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