Policing the Police

20 May 2021

On May 19, the forces de l’ordre, as the French like to say, demonstrated throughout France. The demonstration had three purposes, two clearly legitimate, the third more questionable.

The first purpose was to express grief and elicit the sympathy of the public. A number of police officers have died in the line of duty. Most recently, a female officer was killed by a terrorist and a male officer died in the course of attempting to arrest a drug dealer.

The second purpose of the police demonstration was to complain about low pay, long hours, defective equipment, and generally poor working conditions. The short-handed police have frequently been required to work overtime. This was especially true during the Gilets Jaunes demonstrations, during which tempers frayed and violent clashes erupted, resulting in injuries of both police and demonstrators.

The third police grievance is that the justice system has allegedly coddled criminals and failed to support the police, while successive governments have allegedly allowed certain parts of the country to become zones of lawlessness, under the control of criminal gangs to such an extent that the police are unwilling or unable to enter them.

It is true that the police have become the targets of violence and deserve the sympathy of the population. It is also true that they are underpaid, overworked, and often poorly equipped. These failures should be remedied.

The third grievance is more difficult to assess and deal with. Some police officials feel that they should have a greater say in the disposition of criminal cases. Apparently, some politicians agree with them. It was perhaps not surprising to find interior minister Gérald Darmanin among the demonstrators. He has tried to position himself as Mr. Law and Order. He refers to the forces de l’ordre as his “troops” and says it is his responsibility to support them, even if their work-related complaints–about shortages of manpower, demands for overtime, and deficiencies of equipment–point to failures of his administration. The Elysée took the unusual step of allowing Darmanin to appear among the demonstrators provided he was not associated with the “union-related” aspect of the manif: in other words, with complaints about the failure of the administration.

The presence of the parties of the right, including the RN, was also unsurprising. They have long sought to capitalize on French fears of “insecurity.” The  RN’s Jordan Bardella was prominent among the demonstrators, and it is known that members of the police vote disproportionately for the party of Le Pen.

More surprising, perhaps, was the support the demonstrators received from some parties of the left, including both the Socialists and the Communists. Yannick Jadot, the Green leader who has announced his presidential candidacy, was also on the scene, despite opposition from some elements of the party. Jean-Luc Mélenchon was unsurprisingly scathing in his commentary on the event, despite the legitimacy of grievances 1 and 2. But Socialist leader Olivier Faure opened himself up to JLM’s slings and arrows by supporting droit de regard of the police with respect to the justice system. Indeed, criticism from within the PS itself was loud and clear, and Faure has been backtracking rapidly.

Tensions over “insecurity” are clearly growing as France emerges from the Covid lockdown. The recent proclamation of far-right generals about alleged “suburban hordes” having conquered parts of the Republic in order to impose their own law has now been reinforced by the police demonstrators’ third grievance. In some quarters there is even talk–a bit hyperventilated, to be sure–of a coming “civil war,” which raises the stakes of these political rumblings from the police and army. It would be too much to say that the forces de l’ordre have become yet another source of disorder, but the danger warnings are flashing. It would be nice to see the government addressing the valid concerns of the demonstrators rather than attempting to co-opt them for yet another PR exercise. At the same time, it must be made clear that the police and judges have different functions, and that justice must be administered en sérénité, as one says in French, rather than in response to angry demonstrators.


Photo credit: Kristoffer Trolle via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)


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1 Comment

  • FrédéricLN says:

    I was also quite surprised during this spring to read / hear many of my fellow citizens asserting that “l’insécurité” is a key issue, or that muslim (former) immigrants threaten the social fabric, and so on, *within a pandemic killing millions in the world and more than 100,000 French people*.

    My first thought (and written reaction) has often been: “hey, guys, shouldn’t we prioritize a bit? And save lives first?”.

    A second thought would be: ok, that’s an understandable “déplacement” in the psycho-analytic meaning of the term (e.g. https://www.leconflit.com/2015/04/les-mecanismes-d-orientation-de-l-objet-comme-mecanismes-de-defense-deplacement-substitution-clivage.html). People are truly, deeply scared by Covid, but (curiously, to me) feel powerless against it, or lost. The “usual muslim suspect” may be a kind of scapegoat (once again) in the meaning of “he, at least, has a face, is sizeable, unlike the virus; against him, at least, do we have a politically structured talk”.

    I wouldn’t consider this “déplacement” as very strong or sustainable (it lacks credibility). But it may be enough to feed added support to the police and the army, and more broadly, for any “parti de l’ordre”.

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