As the number of protesters badly injured at the hands of the security forces grows, the French government has been compelled to abandon its hear-no-evil, see-no-evil approach to police violence, experts say.
Several new alleged cases of police brutality, including the death of a man during an arrest operation in Paris and the use of rubber bullets against pension reform protesters, have propelled an issue that has plagued President Emmanuel Macron’s government back to the top of the political agenda.
But whereas in the past Macron and his ministers’ stock response was to defend a force that came under sustained attack during the “yellow vest” anti-government protests, the past week has seen a notable shift in tone.
‘Tripping up ethics’
On Tuesday, Macron warned that the “unacceptable behaviour” of some officers risked undermining the “credibility and dignity” of the force.
While slamming the “violence and political nihilism” seen throughout 16 months of street protests — first by the yellow vests, then by opponents of his pension reforms — Macron called on the interior ministry to come up quickly with proposals on improving police ethics.
During a visit to a police training centre on Monday, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner, usually unquestioning in his support of law enforcement, also ventured some rare criticism.
Alluding to an incident caught on camera recently, in which a police officer is seen tripping up a protester, sending her flying to the ground, Castaner chided: “One does not trip up on ethics without lowering oneself and the police.”
Aline Dailliere, a researcher and author of several reports on police brutality, described Macron’s and Castaner’s remarks as “unprecedented” for French leaders.
“Until now the question of police violence was a taboo subjected that the government did not tackle,” she told AFP.
Castaner’s remarks contrasted sharply with his January 2019 assertion that he knew of “no police officer who has attacked the yellow vests” despite scores of protesters being maimed by rubber bullets or stun grenades — many losing an eye — at the height of the anti-establishment revolt.
Macron at the time also rejected allegations of police brutality, calling it an “unacceptable term in a country that observes the rule of law”.
But several new cases of alleged abuse have piled pressure on the government to rein in rogue officers.
On January 3, a 42-year-old delivery man died of suffocation after being pinned face down on the ground during an arrest operation in Paris, the latest victim of a controversial tactic which has led to several deaths in recent years.
A week later, a video showed a man falling to the ground after an officer apparently fired rubber bullets at point-blank range into a group of pension protesters.
The video reignited the debate over the growing weaponisation of French law enforcement.
During the first two-and-a-half months of the yellow vest demonstrations that started in November 2018, the police used rubber bullets 9,228 times, according to official statistics.
Experts warn that France‘s image as a champion of human rights, dating back to its 1784 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, risks being tarnished by a catalogue of abuses.
In February 2019, the Council of Europe called on the country to suspend the use of rubber bullets against demonstrators.
A month later, the United Nations’ human rights chief called for a thorough investigation into reports of “excessive” police force.
The appeal received short shrift in Paris, which argued that the police tactics were justifiable in the face of “mobs”.
Thomas Legrand, a political commentator on France Inter radio, blamed the string of terror attacks that rocked France in 2015/2016 for convincing the French to accept “small touches of authoritarianism.”
The “Robocop-style getup, the excessive weaponry and masks” used by riot police added to the “tense, bellicose atmosphere” of French demonstrations, he noted in a column on January 10, blaming governments of recent years for lurching to the right on security.
Jeremie Gauthier, a sociologist at the University of Strasbourg who has carried out comparative studies on policing in France and Germany, also warned of “authoritarian impulses” in France, with politicians “tempted to control social movements and populations by force”.
The criticism of the police has further sapped morale in a force crumbling under a mountain of unpaid overtime hours and hit by a wave of suicides.
“We’re at the end of our tether, we’re exhausted,” Thomas Toussaint of the Unsa-Police union complained.
The French interior ministry has pledged to come up with a new police code on restoring law and order in the coming weeks.