I later told my perfectly law-abiding neighbour what had happened. He was astonished.
“You did what?” he said. “And then he drove you home? Astonishing. I would never have thought of asking. People don’t go near gendarmes unless they have to…”
France has a police problem. It is not a new problem. For many years, it was a taboo subject. Now, abruptly, it is in the headlines and filling the endless bulletins of 24 hour news channels.
Police acted violently last month when clearing an illegal migrant camp in the heart of Paris (as they often do when clearing similar camps in more obscure places).
A few days later, disturbing footage showed three policemen beating and racially insulting a music producer for 15 minutes.
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Michel, un producteur de musique, a été tabassé par trois policiers samedi dernier à Paris. Ils l’ont ensuite accusé à tort d'avoir voulu prendre leurs armes et de rébellion.
Mais les policiers ignoraient une chose : tout a été filmé. pic.twitter.com/PTo71fzJzP
— David Perrotin (@davidperrotin) November 26, 2020
There are other victims of France’s “police problem” – the police themselves. There were 59 suicides in the Police Nationale last year, proportionally more than in any profession except farming.
There are some immediate causes for the present crisis, including a flurry of ill-considered recruitment of scarcely-trained officers after the terrorist attacks in 2015.
But there are also structural or cultural causes for France’s uneasy relationship with its police – and for the uneasy relationship of French police with France and with their own lives.
Protester chanting “everyone hates the police” pic.twitter.com/otFA5KQLeu
— Ingri Bergo (@ingribergo) November 28, 2020
The police and gendarmeries are national forces. Whatever the abstract theory, they regard themselves, and are regarded by others, as protectors of the state and the government in power, rather than servants of the people. The criminologist Sebastian Roché describes the French police as “wired to be insulated from society and to respond only to the executive.”
The Police Nationale (in urban areas) and Gendarmerie (in rural areas and small towns) are frequently posted from other places and therefore divorced from local sympathy or experience. They are regarded by local people as more of an occupying force than a protective presence.
This is certainly true within the violent and troubled, multi-racial suburbs. It is also often true in country areas where gendarmes live in fenced compounds of bungalows beside their stations, like so many rural Fort Apaches.
There are cultural explanations for this divide between police and people (which is not exclusive to France but is more pronounced here). France, more than other developed countries, has a problem with public order. Politics goes rapidly to the street.
Successive French presidents and governments know that they need the police to protect them. They have therefore tended to protect and flatter the police (but not to fund or train them properly).
There is a cosy corporate relationship between the ministry of interior, police leadership and the multiplicity of police unions. As a consequence, the longer an office serves, the more he or she has a right to choose a posting.
The most experienced flics can graduate to the cushiest jobs while the young and raw ones are thrust into the urban and banlieues frontlines.
Is there also a race problem with the French police? Clearly, yes. Much has been done to diversify recruitment in recent years but the filmed attack on the music producer Michel Zecler is not an isolated case.
In his recent book Flic, Valentin Gendrot, a journalist who spent two years undercover as a police officer, speaks of a large “racist” minority in the police.
“Nassim”, who spoke to France Culture in July after 37 years as a police officer, says racism is widespread. “People speak of a few black sheep.” he said “But I’d say it’s a whole flock of black sheep. That’s the reality.”
Surveys before recent elections have suggested that over 50 percent of both police and gendarmes vote for the far right nationwide, compared to less than 30 percent in the population as a whole.
In his book Valentin Gendrot blames poor recruitment and inadequate training. So did the interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, when questioned by a parliamentary committee last month.
To boost police numbers after the 2015 terrorist attacks, training was reduced from 12 months to 8. After three months, trainee officers are let loose on the streets with guns.
In theory, all police receive 12 hours top-up training a year – 12 hours! In 2019, Darmanin revealed, only one in five officers did that extra training.
Gendrot says that senior officers complain of “low cost” policing. Anyone who has visited the dingy, tumble-down, local police commissariats in Paris will recognise his description.
“You constantly struggle with plumbing leaks, breaking down, poor equipment because of budget cuts…I’ve known officers spend their own money to buy torches or gloves.”
After more than two decades in France, I would say the police have advanced and improved in some ways but not all. Riot policing, though much criticised, is more restrained than it was 20 years ago (the non-lethal weapons that police use are another question).
Some – not all – of the younger generations of police and gendarmes are more professional and approachable than their arrogant, sometimes brutal predecessors.
But the central police problem remains. Darmanin, like most interior ministers, thought that it was in his interest to flatter and protect the police. Hence his attempt to criminalise “malicious” publication of images of the police on duty – a project now abandoned.
President Macron has now ordered him to present proposals to improve relations between police and public and to ensure that French police are “irreproachable”. Good luck with that.
Better training and more selective recruitment would help. So would more investment in basic police equipment (and much less on flash-balls and stun grenades).
But addressing the core issue – rewiring the police to be more responsive to the people, not just “le pouvoir” – will take a cultural revolution, not a hastily-concocted ragbag of reforms.