While French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin has published his brand new national plan for maintaining law and order, Amnesty International pointed to the “illegal use of force” by French police officers during demonstrations in a recent report. In an interview with EURACTIV France, sociologist Jérémie Gauthier discusses why this is a recurrent issue in France.
Jérémie Gauthier is a sociologist at the University of Strasbourg and at the Marc Bloch Centre in Berlin. He is a specialist on matters relating to the police in France and Germany.
Last week, a report published by Amnesty International accused the French police force and the public prosecutor’s office of having “exploited conflicting laws […] in order to fine, arbitrarily arrest and prosecute people who had not committed any violence”. Is the French police force more violent than elsewhere?
The lack of standardised indicators for measuring the use of police force and its consequences makes it difficult to compare between countries.
As far as France is concerned, data collected by NGOs and journalists indicate an undeniable brutalisation of policing, particularly when it comes to police management of protest crowds. Since 2 December 2019, i.e. since the start of the “Yellow Vests” movement, journalist David Dufresne has recorded four deaths, 344 head injuries, 29 disembowellings and five hands torn off. Demonstrators represent the majority of the victims, but journalists, high school students and passers-by are also among the victims.
Although Germany had experienced some fairly severe clashes between demonstrators and the police, during the 2017 G20 summit in Hamburg, for example, the intensity of the clashes and the physical damage caused was much lower than in France.
The Amnesty International report you mentioned concerns another aspect: the judicial repression of individuals arrested before or during demonstrations. Between November 2018 and July 2019, around 11,000 individuals were held in police custody in this context, and more than half were released without prosecution.
The report is concerned about the infringements on the freedom to demonstrate produced by the criminalisation of certain practices (wearing swimming pool glasses or a mask, holding a banner etc). Breaking the protest mechanism by making it a criminal offence also exists in Germany, but again to a lesser extent than in France.
What is the reason for this escalation of violence?
Since the Yellow Vest movement started, the number of demonstrations has risen sharply. But that doesn’t explain everything. Less aggressive policing strategies in Germany and the extreme rarity of the use of maiming weapons used in France (grenades and defensive bullets) are the two main reasons for this increase in the number of people killed and injured, unprecedented since the demonstrations of 17 October 1961 – during which hundreds of Algerians were killed by the Paris police – and 8 February 1962, when nine people were killed.
If French police officers have heavy weapons, does this mean that they also receive more financial support from the state?
The comparison of budgets is difficult because the organisation and financing of the police differ so much between France and Germany. Nevertheless, sociologist colleagues note that the budget cuts made in France in all public services over the last twenty years or so have resulted in fewer trained and specialised law enforcement units (the Compagnies républicaines de sécurité and the Gendarmes mobiles) because the latter are particularly expensive.
One of the effects of this scarcity of resources is the great fragmentation of the police forces mobilised in recent years: during protests, we now find anti-crime brigades, community police units, and sometimes even police dog brigades. These various units will intervene during demonstrations even though they are not trained for that as it is not their main activity.
In Germany, where budgetary reserves are important, there is no need to fill in the gaps: the available manpower in policing ensures a numerical superiority over the protesters most of the time.
Demonstrations against police violence in the US have found a powerful echo in several European countries such as the UK and France… But not in Germany. Is the perception that Germans have of their police very different from that in France?
The surveys we have on police perception in these two countries put Germany ahead of France, whatever the indicators. For example, in 2017, 79% of those surveyed felt they had confidence in the French police. At the same time, approximately 86% of respondents in Germany said the same.
Between France and Germany, the most important difference is the sense of fairness. In France, this feeling collapses for the police: a minority of the respondents – around 40% according to the surveys – consider that the French police treat people equally, in particular because of their origin and/or skin colour.
Among respondents belonging to minority groups, judgements made about the French police are experiencing a strong erosion. In Germany, the police are perceived as a relatively egalitarian institution, regardless of the social group considered.
How can this crisis of confidence be explained?
For France, I wouldn’t call it a “crisis” but an “erosion” of confidence. On the other hand, there is a “crisis” in the feeling of fairness towards the police. Certain police practices constitute clear breaches of the principle of equality.
In France, identity checks, as well as physical violence, mostly target young black and Arab men, with equal rates of offences. Across the Rhine, differences in check rates between majority and minority groups are much smaller than in France.
Why are there such massive identity checks in France?
There are several reasons for this French peculiarity. First of all: the directives that police officers receive. Since the early 2000s, the “policy of numbers” and the fight against petty crime have become the alpha and omega of public security policies.
The consequence of this context is to place the control of drugs and illegal immigrants at the heart of the attention of the police officers in the field, who believe that “if you control a lot, you’ll end up detecting an offence”. This is particularly the case for the anti-crime brigades that have been criss-crossing the cities to identify and apprehend potential criminals. Identity checks are then unavoidable.
On the other hand, German police forces make much less use of these so-called “proactive” checks and are much more oriented towards prevention, conflict resolution and service to people, tasks for which these controls are not necessary.
Training is also a decisive element. In Germany, it lasts about two and a half years, sometimes three. In France, the apprenticeship of young police officers lasts about ten months at most. For the ADS [security assistants], there are even express training courses, lasting three months.
It’s a whole generation of young cops who, after only a few weeks of training, are given a weapon and assigned to areas where relations with the police have deteriorated the most. In this context, identification checks are used as weapons to impose the police officer’s authority.
Finally, there is the post-colonial argument. In France, the practice of identity control became widespread in the 1960s, in the middle of the Algerian war. The police have always behaved more brutally towards the colonised and the ex-colonised, in the colonies as well as in metropolitan France, than they did towards the mainlanders.
In many respects, the current ruptures in the principle of equality are inherited, without being reduced to it, from relations of domination specific to the colonial era.
In France and Germany, racist comments and acts within the police have been denounced in recent months. Is the situation in the two countries comparable?
In both countries, cases of racism involving the police have recently broken out, often brought to the public’s attention by police “whistleblowers”. Racism is a phenomenon that is difficult to quantify. In both countries, the dynamics of racism are, on the other hand, similar: racist insults towards a third party, racism between police officers, online discussion groups in which racism vies with misogyny and homophobia.
The institutional response seems to be older and stronger in Germany: for example, the “intercultural openness” programmes set up in some police forces in the 2000s in Berlin, for example, have helped reduce the space for racism and put the fight against discrimination on the agenda. In France, denial often dominates both police authorities and politicians.
However, a deadlock remains at the political and police union level in both countries, with regard to what is known as “institutional racism”, which refers to the racist bias produced by the functioning of an organisation, independently of the existence of a racist intention among its officers. In the UK, however, it was the recognition of institutional racism in policing that led to far-reaching reforms in the 1990s.
Finally, there is the ideological dimension. In France, some surveys show a growing adherence of police officers to Rassemblement National [Marine Le Pen’s far-right party]. About 50% of them declare having voted for the extreme right-wing candidate in 2017.
In Germany, the proximity, even collusion, between certain police forces and extreme right-wing movements within police services is very worrying. This has at least been denounced, however, while denial of this type of problem still dominates in France.