Brazen attacks on French police have highlighted the divide between law enforcement and youths in France’s most deprived suburbs. Analysts say bridging the chasm requires changing the entrenched culture of a police force that is answerable to the state, not the people.
With its fresh coat of paint, refurbished offices and supplementary cells, the revamped police station in Champigny-sur-Marne, east of Paris, was hailed as a “showcase” of the government’s suburban policing strategy when it reopened earlier this year following a €4.4 million facelift.
Surrounded by the shabby concrete blocks typical of the French capital’s poorer suburbs, Champigny’s commissariat de police lay at the heart of a newly designated “territory of Republican reconquest”, one of 30 run-down districts across the nation to receive extra police and investment in a highly publicised campaign to drive out street gangs and drug dealers.
The extensive renovation included the construction of a bullet-proof sally port at the front of the building – a crucial addition that may have saved two officers from being lynched in the early hours of Sunday when several dozen youths suddenly attacked the precinct with fireworks and metal bars, smashing windows and damaging police cars parked outside.
Hours after the audacious assault, senior officials were on the spot voicing outrage and vowing to crack down harder on the perpetrators, who were yet to be identified. Valérie Pécresse, the right-wing head of the Île-de-France region, which encompasses Paris, spoke of “scenes of war” at the police station in Champigny, urging the government to deploy more reinforcements in “neighbourhoods hit hardest by organised crime”.
“The little bosses impress no one and won’t discourage us in our fight against drugs,” added Gérald Darmanin, France’s new get-tough interior minister, linking the attack, without evidence, to his crackdown on drug trafficking. “The police are the Republic and the Republic is the police,” the minister sentenced – a choice of words that says a lot about France’s intractable policing problem.
The spectacular assault in Champigny, which rattled officers but caused no injuries, was the latest in a string of attacks against police, and sometimes firefighters, that Darmanin says are a sign of the “great savageness” undermining French values. It came just days after two police officers in civilian clothes were pulled from their vehicle in another Paris suburb and shot multiple times with their own guns. One officer remains in serious condition.
On Monday, scores of police officers staged protests outside the station in Champigny, calling for respect, reinforcements and exemplary punishments. Police are the “last bulwark of the Republic” in France’s roughest suburbs, said one union representative; the Champigny attack proves that officers “are at risk of attack even on their doorstep”, raged another. Darmanin, who met with union leaders in Paris on Tuesday, promised new measures to protect officers in talks with President Emmanuel Macron later this week.
French statistics on crime and delinquency are notoriously a subject of dispute, with talk of “rampant insecurity” often overshadowing the hard numbers. This leaves ample scope for tough-talking politicians and union representatives to shape the narrative.
According to the most recent study by the National Observatory of Delinquency (ONDRP), the number of police officers killed or injured in action rose sharply in 2018 after ebbing in previous years – an upsurge analysts attribute in large part to the fierce clashes with Yellow Vest protesters that peaked late that year. Judging by the number of complaints filed by police, assaults on officers continued to rise throughout 2019, a year also marked by civil unrest.
In another indicator of the strain on France’s police force, deaths by suicide among officers have risen steadily in recent years, to the point they now outnumber deaths in the line of duty. A parliamentary inquiry, made public last year, has listed a multitude of reasons, including overwork since a series of terrorist attacks that started in January 2015. Other sources have pointed at the entrenched hostility that has driven a wedge between police and segments of the public, and the government’s inability – or unwillingness – to address a negative spiral of hatred and violence that hurts the police as much as the public.
Touching on the subject on the eve of his election to the French presidency, back in May 2017, Macron promised to “change the culture, the management and the recruitment of French police” once in office. “When there is manifestly a problem, the police hierarchy must be challenged,” the future president told news website Mediapart. But three years on, the only tangible change is the widened gulf between French police and swathes of the public.
While surveys suggest a broad majority of the French have confidence in the police, months of fierce clashes between riot police and Yellow Vest protesters shed light on the fearsome weaponry and tactics used by law enforcement in France, alienating segments of the public that previously bore no grudge against the police. More recently, the focus has shifted back to the festering issue of police racism and brutality in the immigrant-rich suburbs of France’s largest cities, on the heels of the global protest movement triggered by the George Floyd killing in the US.
At the height of those protests, Jacques Toubon, France's human rights ombudsman, raised the alarm over a "crisis of public confidence in the security forces" in a wide-ranging report that made for grim reading. He urged a reversal of what he described as a "warring mentality" in law enforcement.
That warring mentality is reflected in the language used by both government and police officials when referring to Champigny and other “territories of reconquest”, says Mathieu Zagrodzki, a researcher at the Centre for Sociological Studies on Penal Institutions (CESDIP). Violent incidents like the one in Champigny are “a consequence of decades of hostility and negative stereotyping on both sides”, Zagrodzki told FRANCE 24. “The police see youths in the rougher suburbs as uniformly hostile, while on the other side officers are seen as the enemy. In both cases, the enmity is nurtured early on.”
‘As a kid, I dreamt of being a cop. Who would play the cop now?’
Zouhair Ech-Chetouani, a social worker and spokesperson for the Collectif Banlieues Respect, based in the northern Paris suburb of Asnières, says police have every right to be angry and feel abandoned by a state that “asks them to make up for its own failings”. He argues that both officers and the public are victims of politicians’ misguided view of policing and their preference for repression over crime prevention.
“We must stop considering poor districts as enemies of the Republic, as territories that need to be reconquered,” he said. “The police should serve the public, not political interests. How can they work against the population when they are supposed to protect the population?”
Analysts say the antagonism between French police and youths in deprived areas reflects a structural reluctance to engage with local communities. The establishment of community policing, at the turn of the century, marked a short-lived attempt to bridge the gulf with residents of the banlieues. But the so-called police de proximité (proximity police) jarred with the tough “law and order” rhetoric of conservative firebrand Nicolas Sarkozy, who disbanded the unit after becoming France’s interior minister in 2002.
“You’re not a social worker,” Sarkozy famously told an officer who had helped organise a football tournament for youths in a poor suburb of Toulouse.
Ever since, left-wing politicians have regularly floated the idea of reintroducing some form of police de proximité. But former President François Hollande’s Socialist government made no such attempt. Instead, to the dismay of minority youths singled out by police, Hollande’s administration reneged on a campaign promise to introduce a form of written receipt for all identity checks carried out by officers – a measure long advocated by campaigners against racial profiling.
“When I was younger, the cops and I knew each other, there was a measure of respect,” said Ech-Chetouani. “As a kid, I dreamt of becoming a policeman. That’s unthinkable now. Who would dream of playing the cop here?”
The community worker says the heart of the problem is a lack of police training and the practice of deploying rookie officers from faraway regions in some of the toughest neighbourhoods. “The young officers who get sent here have no knowledge of the banlieues, they often don’t know people from [racial] minorities,” he explained. “They’re sent here like it’s some kind of war zone, with 40 kilos of military hardware. But they simply don’t have the skillset to deal with situations they cannot understand.”
Beholden to the state, not the people
Though police unions generally plead for more hardware, some also point the finger at misguided recruitment policies and a lack of training.
Flavien Bénazet, of the SNUITAM-FSU union, called for “more comprehensive training, which brings in relational skills, psychology and sociology”. He added: “We need more officers, because at present we simply don’t have the time and manpower to build relationships with communities.”
Like many analysts and community workers, Bénazet also called for the reinstatement of the police de proximité, arguing that Sarkozy’s decision to scrap community policing did great damage to relations between the force and the public. “We need officers out on the street, not in their cars. And we need a permanent contact and presence,” he added. “People say this costs a lot of money, but so do other public services that are useful to society.”
While referring to police as a public service is a no-brainer in much of the West, some analysts say the notion is debatable in France, where there is no equivalent of the Anglo-Saxon principle of “policing by consent”.
In France, “the state designed the police force to surveil and control its citizens. It’s a different concept from the Anglo-Saxon idea of a police that is drawn from civil society,” said Zagrodzki. “This is still reflected in different policing cultures today. In France, we have a focus on repression, whereas in Germany and Britain the police forces are designed to solve conflicts.”
Solving conflicts requires specific skills and training, says Sébastian Roché, a research director at the National Center for Scientific Research who specialises in police systems. In the French case, it would also require a radical change of thinking, he adds, noting that French recruits undergo an eight-month training – enough to practise chokeholds but not to learn mediation – against two to three years of instruction in northern European countries.
“French police are beholden to the state, not the people. They need the trust of the government, not the public,” he said, describing this as the “fundamental flaw” that poisons relations between law enforcement and segments of the public, and impedes meaningful reform. “Over the past four decades we’ve seen many reports identifying the structural problems with French policing,” Roché added. “But finding solutions is necessarily a long and complex process – and politicians have no time for this.”