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France pushes to give police greater freedom to use their guns

AFP archive | French police are routinely armed, but have strict rules restricting their ability to use them in self defence.
3 min

The French cabinet was set Wednesday to fast track a proposed law that will widen police officers’ ability to use their sidearms in self-defence.

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Under current rules, officers are only allowed to use their weapons on the basis of “necessity and proportionality”, and only if they are faced with a direct personal threat.

They can only fire if they are directly assaulted by armed individuals, to defend an area they have occupied or if repeated demands to stand down have been ignored.

Police often do not use their sidearms even when faced with threats to their life because they are afraid of breaking the rules, which can lead to their immediate suspension pending an inquiry.

Their anger came to a head in October after four officers were subjected to a Molotov cocktail attack on their car.

They didn’t use their weapons, officers told FRANCE 24 at a protest in Paris the following month, because they “probably hesitated because they were not being shot at”.

Decades of neglect

At the protest, Versailles police officer Nicolas explained that their current rules of engagement were “identical to civilian rules governing self-defence”, and that criminals were both perfectly aware of them and conscious of officers’ fear of getting into trouble.

“It’s a Catch-22,” he said. “When someone is holding a petrol bomb and is ready to throw it, if you use your weapon you are in big trouble. If the petrol bomb lands on you before you can use your weapon, you are also in big trouble because you are being burned. So what’s the point of being armed?”

Officers also complained of chronic under-funding and being “fed up after decades of neglect by changing governments that have eroded our ability to function properly in a job we love”.

“We work in filthy, run-down police stations, we have to provide much of our own equipment – business cards and even pens. We don’t have up-to-date communications or radio equipment and we are expected to rely almost completely on our private mobile phones,” said Nicolas’ colleague Alexandre Langlois. “Above all, none of us feels we can defend ourselves properly.”

Law and order issues ahead of election

The bill would strengthen a law passed in June 2016 that allowed officers to shoot if it would “prevent loss of life in the immediate aftermath of an act of murder”.

It would also allow officers to fire at vehicles that are bearing down on them.

Other proposed measures include doubling sanctions for insulting police, easing conditions to wear hoods to better protect the identity of police officers and €250 million (£222.78 million) to buy new equipment.

The bill, which was proposed in November 2016 and is due to be submitted to Parliament in January 2017, also provides for a tightening of how investigators are identified during criminal proceedings in order to protect them from public retribution.

It is being rushed through parliament by the Socialist government at a time when law and order issues are likely to feature highly in next year’s presidential elections.

Latest polls show the ruling Socialists trailing in third place behind far-right candidate Marine le Pen, and conservative opposition candidate François Fillon, as the two most likely to go through to the second-round face-off.

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