France needs to 'rethink the relationship' between police and citizens

Alain Jocard, AFP | French police demonstrate outside the Opera Garnier in Paris on Oct. 24, 2016.
Text by: Florence RICHARD
6 min

As despair mounts among France’s overworked police force, FRANCE 24 speaks to criminologist Mathieu Zagrodzki about the frustration that has seen law enforcement take to the streets in protest against an increasing work load and extra hours.


French President François Hollande meets with representatives of police unions on Wednesday after more than a week of demonstrations that saw disgruntled police officers take to the streets to protest against their work conditions.

Over the past 10 days, Parisians have witnessed the unusual spectacle of law enforcement officials on the streets of the French capital looking very much like the protesters they are meant to police. Wearing arm bands, holding flags and linking arms, police officers – some with their faces partially covered – have been marching from the Champs de Mars near the Eiffel Tower to the Champs Elysées. Their message: Enough is enough.

Since the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks, French security services and police have been on a heightened state of alert. For the police force, the nationwide state of emergency put in place after the November 13, 2015 Paris attacks has meant an increased work load that has called for extra hours on increasingly dangerous beats. Police officers have complained of a lack of resources, outdated equipment and sheer exhaustion after months of tackling terror threats as well as waves of demonstrations that have often descended into violence.

Video: French police protest over lack of resources (Oct. 2016)

The catalyst for the latest police protests was an October 8 confrontation in the impoverished southern Parisian suburb of Viry-Chatillon, when a group of youths attacked two surveillance cars with rocks, metal bars and Molotov cocktails, severely injuring two officers.

Shortly after the incident in Viry-Chatillon spontaneous police protests broke out across the country, with officers voicing little confidence in the politicians that oversee them, the unions that represent them and above all their chief, National Police Commissioner Jean-Marc Falcone. The police chief’s statement to the press that it was “unacceptable” for protesting officers to demonstrate in uniforms and use police cars further incensed the force’s rank and file, with protesters frequently chanting “Falcone, resign!”

As the discontent mounts with a new round of protests set for Wednesday, FRANCE 24 spoke to Mathieu Zagrodzki from the Scientific Observatory for Crime and Justice (OSCJ) at the Paris-based Sciences-Po university.

France 24: The police unions are very powerful, but this time, they have not led the protest movement. How do you explain this?

Mathieu Zagrodzki: In recent years, there has been growing mistrust between the base and the trade unions. Trade unionists are seen as too close to the politicians, cut off from the challenges police face on the ground, and more interested in serving the interests of the union rather than the union members they claim to represent. Nevertheless, the profession remains highly unionised. To achieve any change – for instance, if a police officer is the subject of an investigation – police officers needs the support of the unions.

The unions are trying to regain control of the movement. Can they do this and do they have any interest in doing so?

The interior ministry cannot have a de facto discussion with anyone else. The spokesmen that have emerged [from the latest spontaneous protest movement] have been received here and there, but agreements have to be negotiated with the unions; it is difficult to do otherwise. Do they (the unions) have an interest in taking control of the movement? I think that, faced with these unprecedented levels of discontent, the unions don’t have a choice. It’s in their interest to rally their troops, to return to the game or lose credibility. I do not see them abandoning ship.

The first secretary of the ruling Socialist Party, Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, has accused the right-wing National Front party of being behind this movement. Do you share his opinion?

No, I do not believe this movement is led, or was triggered, by that party at all. The National Front apparatus does not have a sufficient grip on the police force for this. After all, there are National Front supporters or sympathisers in the police force just as there are in the rest of French society. That the National Front is trying to seize the movement is undeniable. But in my opinion, the party is not in control, it does not have the resources to organise a movement of this type. This movement is not politicised and is not intended to destabilise the government. These are people on the ground displaying their despair over their working conditions.

Demonstrators are showing an extreme distrust of the justice system. They denounce what they believe is the impunity with which suspects, including those who attack the police, get away with their crimes. This perception among the police force is not new, but it seems to be on the rise. Why is this happening?

It’s true that this is not a new phenomenon, but it's getting worse. We’ve been hearing this for years. But in reality it’s a battle between the perception and the numbers. Justice always responds with more severity [in cases of attacks against the police], and the statistics attest to this fact: prison sentences for assaults are increasing as are the number of arrests. But the police themselves get the sense that they arrest people one day only to see them back on the streets the next day. They believe that the tighter measures are still not commensurate with the increasing levels of violence they see on the ground. This is all a problem of the enforcement of sentences and the time lag between the arrests, the length of the legal proceedings and incarceration.

What can be done to soothe the current discontent?

First-aid, bandages, disinfectant, the promise of new jobs and more material ... but the problem is much deeper. If we want to solve this police malaise, it needs fundamental change, which has not been seen since the days of community policing (between 1998 to 2003). We must initiate a debate about the role of police in society. We must redefine their missions, which today include anti-terrorism and anti-trafficking operations. The other major project is to rethink the relationship between the police and citizens. Today, the police are focused on politicians whereas they must focus on citizens. In Britain, police assessment is partly based on citizen satisfaction. This is far from the case in France. Statistics have little meaning for people – we must give a face to the police.  


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