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My Europe

French police: Why their protest measures are so controversial

French police: Why their protest measures are so controversial

French police are some of the most heavily armed in Europe, drawing from an arsenal holding sting-ball grenades, GM2L tear gas and flash-balls—some classified as war materials—to ‘maintain order’ in nationwide protests. But researchers argue that excessive police force is effectively executed by design in a system that is resistant to change.

Human rights organisations, including the UN, Council of Europe and Amnesty International have sounded alarms on the force’s violent tactics, particularly during pension reform protests this year.

“There is, effectively, a regime of police violence in France,” Mathieu Rigouste, researcher in social sciences and author of La Domination Policière, said. “Not only in France, obviously… and this is characterised again by the retirement protest movement, by a general use of massive brutality, heavy use of poisonous gas and mutilating weapons.”

Adjacent EU countries have implemented de-escalation policies and operate with theoretically higher accountability and less weaponry, according to Sebastian Roché, a researcher specialising in policing at the National Center for Scientific Research.

“There’s a big difference between the French approach and the approaches of the big European neighbours that also have problems with protests,” he said.

Experts cite colonialism, the aftermath of the 1968 protests and a general superiority complex as some of the influential factors on French policing and resistance to reform.

Flash-balls, grenades, water cannons, GM2L tear gas, batons

French police have flash-balls, grenades and grenade launchers, water cannons, GM2L tear gas, batons and tonfas, quads and firearms at their disposal during protests, which are responsible for almost all of the injuries caused on the ground, according to Roché.

From the flash-ball alone—which launches a 28-gram rubber bullet at 350 km/h—there have been 29 permanent mutilations and 620 people hit since November 2018, the start of the yellow vests movement, according to violencespoliciers.fr. The site notes that 28% of the victims were hit in the head.

Though France isn’t the only country in Europe that’s equipped with these arms, it’s an anomaly in comparison to other long-standing European democracies. Police forces in Greece and certain regions of Spain carry similar weaponry, according to Roché. But in comparison to the UK, Germany and the Scandinavian countries—who also use arms to disperse protesters—the French arsenal is even more expansive.

“The Germans use water cannons from big vehicles that project water onto protesters to push them back…this is their principal instrument,” Roché said. “The English don’t have water cannons—they judge that they’re impractical, dangerous and expensive… same for the Scandinavian countries, they don’t have grenades and rubber bullets.”

Youths run through tear gas during a protest in Nantes, western France, on April 6, 2023.Jeremias Gonzalez/AP Photo.

‘Tear gas was used in Algeria before being used in May 1968 in France’

Researchers argue French policing tactics today have links to colonialism and the aftermath of the May 1968 protests. The arms deployed in French protests were ‘tested’ during colonial rule.

“Tear gas was used in Algeria before being used in May 1968 in France,” Roché said.

Rigouste argues colonialism has a pervasive impact on French policing beyond its arsenal, noting that the current model is more media and police-centric, while the previous was more militarised.

“These management models, these regimes of violence, [were] imported and translated, remodelled in France itself… it’s not exactly the same model, but there are links, there’s a continuity,” he said.

After the May 1968 protests, the French government formed the ‘Voltigeurs,’ a specialised police force on motorcycles that many cite as the precursor to today’s Brav-M, the motorised unit accused of excessive violence against protesters.

“In 1968, the permanent war market that was essential to contemporary capitalism opened up to a new market, to regenerate capitalism in the market of interior war—the market of security,” Rigouste said.

With arms behind their heads Paris students are led through debris and into custody of helmeted police, May 11, 1968, after rioting in the Latin Quarter of Paris, France.GUY KOPELOWICZ/1968 AP

‘There is no legal definition of order’

A key difference between France and countries like Germany and the UK is that while the latter theoretically follow principles of de-escalation at protests, the French approach adapts to the violence level of the protesters to «maintain order,» according to Roché.

But this could be a grey zone by definition. Police operate under the National Schema of Maintaining Public Order. But «order» is a subjective term, leaving room for interpretation.

“There is no legal definition of order,” Roché said.

The protests this spring sparked concern as to whether the French police actually follow their own rules.

Police are obligated to facilitate the work of journalists during protests, and journalists should even benefit from added protection, according to the public order schema.

“What we’ve seen is the contrary— journalists that filmed were threatened sometimes… hit to the ground, their material was damaged or broken by the police,” Roché said.

Rémy Buisine, a journalist, brought attention to this issue when he was struck by a truncheon while lying on the ground, shortly after he had been hit by a sting-ball grenade while filming an Instagram live for Brut. 

“What’s really problematic is that we have a usage of force, even violence, brutality… and it’s carried out before there’s trouble,” Vincent Victor, co-founder of violencespoliciers.fr, said. “This is completely illegal… in these conditions, the usage of force is disproportionate compared to the situation.”

But Eric Henry, National Delegate for the union Alliance Police Nationale, maintains that French police always operate within their legal bounds during protests.

«There’s only legitimate force, strictly necessary, the force that is authorised by the law, so the police can defend themselves or to protect [peaceful demonstrators],» he told Euronews. «Police violence doesn’t exist.»

Brut media reporter Rémy Buisine works during a May Day rally in Paris, May 1, 2019.Francois Mori/AP Photo

‘The arrests are preventative’

Preventative arrests are another issue that sparks concern, according to Roché and Rigouste.

Police carry out pre-checks to look for items like goggles or gas masks that could indicate resistance to tear gas, for example. There are groups — like Black-Blocs — that attend protests specifically to provoke violence, and the schema does account for taking an anticipatory role in preventing this. 

During May Day this year, 108 police officers were injured, according to the Interior Ministry. But assumptions some attend to incite violence are not grounds for taking people into custody, according to Rigouste, referring to arrests in Sainte-Soline this spring.

“The arrests are preventive, meaning we arrest people based on what we presume their ideas and the possibilities of taking action are,” he said.

«[The police] are there to help demonstrators get from Point A to Point B… to allow people to protest safely, to preserve the freedom to demonstrate— that’s their role,» Céline Verzeletti, Secretary General at the CGT union said. «But today, we have the impression that they’re there to arrest protesters, or threaten protesters.»

Roché notes the police have also used intimidation tactics to deter people from attending protests in the first place, despite protesting being considered a fundamental right in France.

“Throughout history, when [the government] was confronted with revolts, with uprisings, when they’re threatened by popular revolt, they step up their regime of repression, and they militarise more and more,” Rigouste said. “And this is something that is seen throughout history in all nation states.”

A man is detained by riot police officers during a demonstration against plans to push back France’s retirement age, on Jan. 31, 2023 in Paris.Christophe Ena/AP Photo

‘It’s a culture that evolves in a closed space’

In Europe, there have been concerted efforts to evolve policing tactics. In 2010, twelve countries—including Sweden, Germany, the UK, Denmark and Austria—participated in the EU-backed GODIAC project (“Good practice for dialogue and communication as strategic principles for policing political manifestations in Europe”) to promote communication during protests. 

GODIAC initiated field study groups, workshops and seminars over a three-year period. The reports would then be used for future police training. France did not participate, but it has now included a section on communication in the schema.

Roché believes the French police force suffers from a superiority complex.

“If you listen to the heads of the police and politicians… they think they’re the best in the world,” he said. “Since they’re the best in the world, they have nothing to learn from others.”

This spring, in the midst of nationwide retirement protests — and videos of police and protester clashes circulating through social media— Darmanin said point-blank on RTL radio that “there is no police violence”.

Roché argues a centralised structure, compared to other countries in the EU, could bolster a superior stance.

“So it’s a culture that evolves in a closed space,” he said. “It’s more difficult to reform it.”

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