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Why the image of French police is taking a beating

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2011-10-26

A handful of France’s most respected police officers have recently been implicated in a string of scandals involving drugs, prostitution, bribes and spying on journalists, resulting in a storm of negative attention for French law enforcement.

An image of brutality and corruption has long clung to New York and Los Angeles police departments, but these days, it’s the reputation of French law enforcement that seems most under fire.

A handful of previously renowned French officers have been implicated in a string of scandals in recent weeks, revolving around accusations of facilitating prostitution, rubbing shoulders with criminals, bribing informants with drugs, and spying on journalists.

The incidents have unleashed a storm of bad press for French police, prompting Interior Minister Claude Guéant to announce on October 21 that he would impose new measures to more closely supervise officers, particularly those in close contact with informants. “We are reflecting on what we can do to avoid these types of incidents from recurring,” Guéant told journalists.

Meanwhile, Sylvie Feucher, general secretary of the union of French police superintendents, has called for “lessons to be learned”. “Why so many of these cases all at once?” she asked.

Sex, drugs and spying

In the most recent case, Bernard Squarcini, the head of France’s secret services and a member of President Sarkozy’s inner circle, was placed under investigation last week for using the telephone records of a reporter for top French daily Le Monde to identify a mole leaking information about a political scandal. Next week, Frédéric Péchenard, France’s chief of police, is expected to be questioned in the case.

The investigation has incensed the French political class, with newly elected Socialist presidential candidate François Hollande calling for Squarcini to step down – and Sarkozy’s prime minister, François Fillon, hitting back that Squarcini is innocent until proven guilty.

More sensational still is the case of Jean-Christophe Lagarde, a top commissioner in the north of France, who was placed in custody last week following allegations that he arranged secret meetings between prostitutes and former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn in Paris and New York.

Lagarde was rumoured to be in talks with Strauss-Kahn to lead his security team if the former Socialist presidential hopeful was elected to the Elysée.

Lagarde has also been accused of helping oversee a prostitution ring in the northern French city of Lille.

Meanwhile, another reputed officer, Michel Neyret of Lyon (France’s second-biggest city), was arrested earlier in the month for fraternising with criminals and bribing informants with drugs. Once renowned as a “supercop” who effectively cracked down on drugs and robbery, Neyret now admits that he accepted gifts, including fancy cars and a vacation to Morocco, from powerful local criminals.

Neyret is said to be the inspiration for the main character in French director (and former police officer) Olivier Marchal’s upcoming crime thriller “Le Lyonnais”. Marchal has spoken up on behalf of Neyret, calling him “incorruptible…a good man and an extraordinary cop”.

“In a country that’s been overly sanitised, he no longer fits in,” Marchal concluded during a press conference.

But according to Christian Mouhanna, a specialist in French police and justice at the Centre for Sociological Research on Law and Criminal Justice Institutions (CESDIP), cases like those of Lagarde and Neyret are not exactly new in France.

“We’ve already seen several cases like this in France, in the mid-90s, for example,” Mouhanna explained. “Every time, the argument the officers give – which I’m not passing judgment on – is that they need to frequent certain people and places in order to obtain information about what’s going on there.”

Police mixed with politics makes for a ‘very bad’ image

What is noteworthy, Mouhanna said, is the fact that such cases have recently started to accumulate, which, he noted, is “clearly very bad for the image of the French police”.

That image has already been painted in broadly damning strokes in the foreign press, particularly during the 2005 riots in the Parisian suburbs; disenfranchised minority youths told journalists about random and discriminatory id checks in the street, and photos of French police officers facing off against protesters were splashed across front pages around the world.

But according to Mouhanna, the bad reputation the French police is getting these days is of an entirely different sort, perhaps best epitomised by the Bernard Squarcini case and its far-reaching political implications. Sarkozy is known to have kept tabs on rivals through close police contacts, including Squarcini, acquired during his time as interior minister from 2002 to 2007.

“The Squarcini affair is different from the other recent police scandals, because it is a case of the police being used presumably to protect the the president and his ministers from journalists trying to do investigative work,” Mouhanna explained. “So it’s not just bad for the police’s image, it’s also bad for President Sarkozy.”

Date created : 2011-10-24


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