France’s Senate approves the right of police to carry weapons off duty

·4-min read

France’s Senate passed Thursday Article 25 of a security law that allows off-duty police officers to carry their firearms into public establishments such as theatres and shopping centres, and forbids the management of such places from preventing it. The article drew opposition from across the political spectrum despite its passage.

Not as well known as the same security law’s Article 24, which aimed to criminalise the dissemination of images of police officers that could harm their “physical or mental integrity” and sparked widespread protests in France, Article 25 provides that local officers and gendarmes (national police) who carry their weapons while off-duty can no longer be refused access to places like museums, cinemas, shopping centres and schools, which France classifies as ERP – establishments open to the public.

While French senators passed Article 25 by a vote of 214 to 121 without any changes to the version already approved by the lower-house National Assembly, the article raised questions and provoked an outcry from senators of all political persuasions.

French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin pointed out during the Senate’s debate that police officers carrying weapons while off-duty is not a new phenomenon. Since 2016, officers have had the right to carry their firearms outside working hours if they have requested it from superiors. Today, more than 30,000 officers in France bring their firearms home.

“We’re not setting the world on fire,” Darmanin said of Article 25.

“There is simply a custom that the owner of the establishment receiving the public can refuse entry” to an off-duty officer carrying a gun, Darmanin said to senators. To end this custom, “we are proposing to introduce legislation … which should please the legislators that you are.”

But not all present were pleased. A series of amendments aimed at eliminating Article 25 was defended by lawmakers from the Socialist and Green parties, as well as senators from the communist-majority CRCE and European Democratic and Social Rally groups. Furthermore, more than 20 senators among the chamber’s centrists, right-of-centre Les Républicains and Independents also backed the amendments.

‘Not a trivial matter’

“Deciding to carry a weapon is not a trivial matter," said Laurent Lafon, a centrist senator from the Val-de-Marne département (administrative area) in the Paris region. “First of all, for the police and the gendarmes themselves. But also for others. How would we feel if we saw a person in a theatre wearing civilian clothes and carrying a weapon sitting next to us? Would we feel reassured, or would we feel worried?”

Lafon’s arguments were shared by Sylvie Robert, a Socialist senator from the western Ille-et-Vilaine département. “Nothing proves that an armed policeman makes an ERP more secure.”

“We must move away from this simplistic logic," Robert added, bringing up the possibility of an "accident" if a weapon is dropped or stolen.

Anne-Sophie Simpere, an advocacy officer at Amnesty International France, said that “all measures that further facilitate the carrying of weapons are regressive” in an interview with FRANCE 24.

“This measure places a heavy responsibility on police and gendarmes, who must always be ready to act even in a place of celebration. What would happen if one of them were to drink while carrying their weapon?” Simpere said. “It would have been good to carry out a study to determine whether this type of measure is truly necessary.”

Festival organisers also fear that security staff will now be forced to let armed plainclothes officers in with a simple police identity card, which can be easily falsified.

‘False debate’

But Denis Jacob, the secretary general of Alternative Police, a union associated with the CFDT labour federation, told FRANCE 24 that concerns about Article 25 constitute a “false debate”.

“Since 2016, police officers have been going to public places with a hidden firearm in a holster or a bag in the summertime, and it’s never been a problem,” Jacob said. “On the contrary, it is an additional security guarantee to know that police officers and gendarmes can intervene in case of an attack.

“French police officers are still far from their American counterparts, who have full authority to use their weapons. In France, weapons’ use remains extremely restricted, and weapons can only be used in the strict context of legitimate defence.”

Frédéric Ploquin, a police specialist and the author of the book Les Narcos français brisent l'omerta (French narcotics agents break the code of silence) also has a positive view of Article 25.

"Firstly, there is no obligation for officers to carry a weapon off duty,” Ploquin said to FRANCE 24. “And it’s only a question of intervention in a terrorist context like the Bataclan,” he said, referring to the Paris concert hall where armed Islamist militants killed 90 people on November 13, 2015.

“Many [officers] confided to me that they don’t want to hide with others under the tables in case of an attack. They prefer to intervene for the love of the job,” Ploquin said.

Whether reassuring or alarming, the French Senate has spoken on Article 25. Since it was adopted by both chambers of parliament on the first reading, the article cannot be amended in the National Assembly.

This article was translated from the original in French.