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France

Police hit back after officer is fired for criticising Sarkozy’s reforms

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2010-04-07

Members of the Gendarmerie, a French military institution charged with policing rural areas, have broken out of their usual reserve to defend an officer who was discharged after publicly criticising plans to merge the force with civilian police.

They call it “La Grande Muette” [the Silent Lady]… In France, members of the army and the “Gendarmerie” [military institution responsible for ensuring public safety in non-urban territories] are known for their tight-lipped reserve regarding government policy. But the recent discharge of a high-ranking officer who openly criticised government plans to merge the Gendarmerie with civilian police bodies has unveiled a growing feeling of discontent, and even signs of unrest, within the highly disciplined force.
 
The grumbling is especially noticeable online, via a blog and forum set up by members
Officer Jean-Hughes Matelly, March 2010.
of the gendarmerie in 2007, “Gendarmes et Citoyens". Recent posts have all come out in support of Jean-Hughes Matelly, an officer discharged from the force in March by presidential decree after he spoke out against President Nicolas Sarkozy’s security reforms.
 
Matelly first made his qualms about security reforms known in December 2008, when he published an opinion article on French news website Rue89 expressing his concern at what he saw as the “death of a rural security force at the service of ordinary French citizens”. “The ‘gendarmerie’ is dying, but because we don’t talk, no-one cares,” wrote the officer, who also conducts research on sociological and penal issues for the French public research institute CNRS.
 
 
'Sarkozy is pissing […] on my head'
 
The Gendarmerie is charged with maintaining law and order in rural and small-town areas (civilian police are responsible for ensuring safety within large cities), with a network of units covering 95 percent of the French territory. According to Matelly, current governmental plans to merge the duties of both security forces due to “short-sighted budgetary restrictions” are “just one more example of the decline of national public services” under Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency.
 
Dozens of gendarmes have posted messages on "Gendarmes et Citoyens" corroborating Matelly’s viewpoint. Eighty-nine percent of 200 officers questioned in an online poll said that Matelly’s column in Rue 89 “completely reflected” their own concerns. One officer expressed his outrage on Saturday by posting an eloquent, albeit somewhat tasteless, poem entitled “It’s raining under our caps”, in which he accuses Sarkozy of “pissing on [gendarmes'] heads”. He was promptly sanctioned for what his superiors called “outrageous language” and “disrespect for the institution [of the Gendarmerie]”.
 
Military loyalty
 
Before he began speaking out against the merger, Matelly was a distinguished unit commander in the Picardie region whose service had received glowing reviews. His superiors justified his discharge by the fact that the outspoken officer continued to be publicly critical of reform plans after he was warned to keep quiet on the issue. “Mr. Matelly did not respect his military duty of loyalty to government institutions. […] His discharge did not come by surprise,” Gendarmerie spokesman General Jean-Philippe Ster told reporters in March.
 
Unlike urban and riot police, gendarmes are widely popular with the French population, and considered a well-trained and efficient law enforcement body. According to Matelly, the Gendarmerie’s role is “policing based on respectful and helpful service to the public” rather than on “repression”.
 
Several opposition senators have spoken out in defence of the officer, calling his discharge a “worrying and disproportionate sanction”. Until now, only officers convicted of corruption or violent misdemeanours were permanently discharged from the force.

 

Date created : 2010-04-07

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