Can Europe Make It?

Understanding the State of Law, French-style

It is part of the Jupiterian approach that dominates the relationship between citizen and authority in the French Fifth Republic.

Chris Myant
27 April 2020
Two French police officers in Paris question a woman after the 6 p.m. curfew on March 17, 2020.
Two French police officers in Paris question a woman after the 6 p.m. curfew on March 17, 2020.
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Daniel Brown/PA. All rights reserved.

Watch a short citizen’s video, listen to the sudden, pained cry of the young Black woman hit by a taser less than a metre from the police officer firing the gun, and then we can talk about police practice in the self-proclaimed birthplace of human rights. Not about “police violence” because President Emmanuel Macron has explained that would be wrong, very wrong. “Do not talk of repression or police violence, these words are unacceptable in a State of law,” were the ones he used in March 2019. It is, in France, the crime that must not be allowed to speak its name.

The video only takes 17 seconds, here. The link should work.

Ramatoulaye is 19 and a mother. She lives in Aubervilliers, the first suburb you come to as you go north across the Boulevard Périphérique around central Paris. Like many, she does not have a printer at home. She cannot just run off copies of Ministry of the Interior forms you need in France if you want to leave home during the Covid-19 confinement. So she had followed the official instruction for what to do in such circumstances and copied the document by hand. She then went shopping with her younger brother, aged just seven. They were stopped on the return journey. In the video, you can see the half-full shopping trolley to the left of the huddle of police.

There appear to be eight officers in all in the patrol. You see her brother to the right of the screen for a second or two. Two officers are immediately in front of Ramatoulaye, quite able to reach out and hold her. There is a bit of movement between the three, she cries out, falling back and to the ground as the officer furthest from the camera appears to be putting the taser back into his holster. The other one has a sheet of paper in his hand, perhaps her hand-written form? No officer moves in any way to show surprise or concern when she is tasered and screams. The one with the form wanders away while two others help the officer with the taser to grapple with Ramatoulaye on the ground.

She says she was then slapped and insulted in the police van on the way to the station. She was held for an hour before being unconditionally released.

It is apparently easy for many in France to continue with their lives and remain completely oblivious to this kind of experience.

Hundreds of thousands of penalties

The Interior Minister Christophe Castaner was on the main public radio station, France Inter, the morning after President Macron announced that France would remain confined until May 11. There had been 11.8 million “contrôles” of which 706,000 led to some sort of penalty. In contrast, he claimed, figures from an official website for complaints showed that “I have, concerning Covid-19, 166 notifications since the beginning of the confinement. It’s few.” Of these, his officials said later, just seven were to do with allegations of police violence.

The site Castaner was referring to is that of the IGPN, the General Inspectorate of the National Police. This is a service within the Police Nationale, not independent of it. You have to complain to it because otherwise you do not get far with a legal or other form of complaint or with an insurance claim. Even so, many do not. The few who do, rarely expect the IGPN to do anything serious. The reason why is indicated in the following quote.

“You cannot make a value judgement about someone whose job it is to maintain order. It can have dramatic consequences when it comes to managing public order if you say to police officers they should have pulled back. If one says that today, tomorrow the police will no longer hold fast and will pull back saying that in the end that’s what the administration thinks in this situation.” The words are those of the Director of the IGPN, Brigitte Jullien, in an interview with the daily Libération published on 4 August 2019.

She was commenting on the performance of the police with respect to the drowning in Nantes of Steve Caniço just before dawn six weeks earlier. There had been a music festival that continued after the time arranged with the authorities. The police charged, firing teargas grenades as they came. In the panic, Steve disappeared. It took a month for the police to find his body in the river Loire. At first, the official line was that he had not been there – though it turned out that they knew that his mobile phone had been localising from the quayside up to the moment of the police charge.

“Justice pour Steve” was on walls everywhere last summer. In case people did not get the message that justice was not on the official agenda, Castaner’s deputy, Laurent Nunez, explained, while Steve’s body was still in the Loire, that “the Ministry will systematically appeal any condemnations” by a court of the police. Nunez, of course, knows a thing or two about the truth of things. He was the director of France’s MI5 before joining Castaner in the ministry.

Aside from the transport and other specialist police forces there are also the Gendarmerie Nationale and the legion of Police municipale, a total of 4,372 separate forces in 2019. These are the police forces formed by the mayor of a commune – it could be the city of Paris which is hoping to have a force of some 3,500 police, or a tiny village on the slopes of the Pyrenees that is content with just one armed officer whose main job may well be just collecting the rent from market stall holders. For the Gendarmerie there is the equivalent of the IGPN, the IGGN, just as internal, just as capable of believing the officer even before the victim might hove in sight. For the individual Police municipale, things are not always so clear.

One can also go to the Défenseur des droits, the Defender of Rights, a sort of amalgam of all the ombudsmen for the public and regulatory services with a dash of the roles of the Independent Office for Police Conduct and the Equality and Human Rights Commission. In 2018, 95,836 people did, five per cent of them raising issues to do with the police. But the Défenseur has no power of enforcement or of punishment, however wrong they consider the action was. Consequently, their carefully stated, but repeated calls for the better control of the use of tasers have not stopped police officers regularly acting in the way you have just seen.

One decision issued by the Défenseur concerned the use of a taser in 2010 on a 17-year-old they wanted to question and who, the officers claimed “had a hostile attitude”. Perhaps that was what the powerfully-built officer who tasered Ramatoulaye thought of her. The Défenseur explained that the “hostile attitude” had “in reality been manifested by the fact that the person pulled back their covers and sat on their bed ... As the taser was used in contact mode, the officer was sufficiently close to the ‘hostile’ person to control them with the help of technical and professional gestures for which they were particularly well trained.”

This was pure punishment, not proper policing.

No statistics

One would like to know how many times people have been injured by the use of tasers, how many, indeed, may have been killed. There are no statistics. There is no independent public or judicial authority to which the different police forces in France must report such matters, no requirement to be accountable in any form whatsoever to the public. The first time an official figure for the number killed by police appeared was at the end of June 2018. The IGPN offered a figure of 14 dead as a result of “interventions by the police” over the previous twelve months. In June 2019, it gave a figure of 15. In neither year did its annual report detail who the dead were or how they died. We just got that bare statistic.

Others have tried to fill the gap, working largely from reports in the media. The radical website Basta! last year offered a figure of at least 676 people killed by police between 1975 and 2018, 77 of them by off-duty officers. Since 2010, it said, fourteen had died from “non-lethal” police weapons but that, over the whole period, 412 were shot dead, 235 being unarmed at the time. Eighty-two died in police stations and 149 during an ID check.

One organisation that has been trying to find out the truth, and reduce the toll from violent police action, is a Christian charity founded to campaign against the death penalty and torture around the world, ACAT or Action by Christians for the Abolition of Torture. On 9 March, just before the start of France’s Covid-19 lockdown, it issued a detailed report, Maintaining Order: At what price? dissecting the way the police in France have “maintained public order” recently.

“The absence of official and exhaustive details on the number of people injured, or even killed during operations by the police or gendarmerie, questions the willingness of the authorities to shine a light on the use of force and to firmly punish any abuses. There seems little likelihood that information about the use of force would not have been compiled, or at least could have been,” ACAT argued.

ACAT has highlighted the way in which police have lied. In one case, that of a teenager injured by a police “non-lethal” projectile back in 2010, the officer explained in court later that he had fired because Geoffrey Tidjani had thrown a stone at him and was preparing to throw another. A straight lie. Video film taken by witnesses showed him pushing a wheelie bin when he was hit. The judge commented that “citizens’ videos break the police’s monopoly of evidence and give a radically different picture.” Unfortunately, few since have had the same chance as Geoffrey.

Demonstrations

The target of the report was the policing of demonstrations – the trade union protests and the Gilets jaunes – over the last couple of years. Rallies and street protests are off the agenda for the foreseeable future but what Ramatoulaye experienced is not. These are feeding a sense of deep anger and resentment across wide, but separate, parts of the French public: the labour and trade union movement in action against the government’s social policies, the Gilets jaunes and the inhabitants of France’s “banlieus”, the concrete block suburbs where the vast majority of its ethnic minorities have to find a home.

True, the violence of the police was much worse in the more distant past, whether during strikes, political demonstrations or just Saturday night brawls. The culminating event was not the riot police charges in May ’68, but the massacre of non-violent Algerian demonstrators in Paris on 17 October 1961. No one knows how many died at the hands of the police, at least one hundred, maybe double that. Many were shot, many clubbed to death, many, perhaps dozens, were just thrown into the Seine to drown. A sobering thought that comes to my mind every time I wander along that tourist haven of La rive gauche to have a coffee in Le quartier latin.

As if to remind me just how bitter that coffee should taste, at 2am on Sunday 26 April a troop of police were filmed joking about a young man – an asylum seeker, by all accounts – they appear to have pulled from the Seine at Ile-Saint-Denis. The rather indistinct video is found here. There are two things to note. First, an officer says: “A bicot like that, they can’t swim” and another then replies: “Haha! That’s good. You should have tied a cannon ball to his foot.” Bicot is French for a kid goat. Since French troops were first sent to conquer Algeria two centuries ago, it has also been one of the language’s N words, an insult for men from the Mahgreb. The second thing is the sound of the young man crying out as he is beaten in the police van. He was released without charge. The video was viewed 1.6 million times within 24 hours. If only there had been smart phones in October 1961.

Either on the ground or via the tv screen we have seen chaotic police charges, the sort of thing that even the least qualified Hollywood director would never have allowed when filming extras in a battle scene. They end inevitably with the random truncheoning of anyone within reach. The beatings I have seen myself, or via the media and the net, can continue when the target is lying curled like a baby on the ground. Pure punishment, not crowd control.

Signals

Journalists have complained in number about being targeted and injured by police projectiles, many of them photographers, all too obvious with their long-lens cameras. The latest to be targeted is Taha Bouhafs, just as I am writing this piece. Go to here, and you will see what I mean. Hunt around a bit and you will find the Periscope video he took as the police came at him, complete with the real-time comments from members of the public watching.

In the two months before the Covid lockdown, against a background of growing public anger, Macron himself observed that this sort of thing could harm “the dignity of our professionals in the internal security forces.” The daily Le Monde was able to tell us on 16 January that “the prime minister’s entourage considers that it is time to ‘send a signal to the French people and to the forces of order’.”

To get a feel for the nature of that signal and how dignified the behaviour of France’s police is under the encouragement of its President, watch an event that took place in Limoges on 22 April. It’s here. One might suppose it was a bundle between bored youths, but actually it is an arrest being made by three police officers in which you can make out one of them firing a projectile into the belly of his target at two metres range. That’s when you hear the loud shout. Then another officer runs across to give the man on the ground a kick.

The weekend the Covid-19 lockdown started there was to have been a demonstration in Paris called by a coalition of the families of the injured or killed over the past 20 years supported by prominent public figures such as Philippe Martinez, leader of the CGT union federation. To coincide with it the families, through their Observatoire national des pratiques et des violences policières, made available a smart phone app to help members of the public film incidents like that in Limoges. It gives the user ten minutes of video time, the video being geo-localised and transmitted in real time to the Observatoire’s secure server.

Amal Bentounsi, one of the activists behind the app, has been a powerful and moving voice at some of the rallies, never very large, against police violence in recent years. When you hear her speak, you sense a real dignity that comes from the certainty of her cause. The certainty comes not from the fact the police shot her brother dead at 5.10am on 21 April 2012, but that the lie the officer concerned concocted to cover his crime was fully exposed. Damien Saboundjian maintained that he had fired at someone aiming a gun at him. The autopsy showed he had hit his target in the back.

Even so, when the case finally got to the Court of Appeal in Paris in 2017, the prosecutor used the phrase “a lack of discernment” to describe the decision to fire. For his part, Saboundjian maintained: “He aimed at me. I fired.” The officer got five years suspended, was banned from carrying a gun for five years but was allowed to remain on active service.

One who quickly publicised the app on his own networks, was the journalist David Dufresne (follow him at www.davduf.net ). He has been an indefatigable purveyor of reports of police malpractice. During the early Gilets jaunes protests, he started sending phone videos of injuries he came across on the net to the Ministry of Interior’s Twitter account named after the Ministry’s address, Place Beauvau. His [email protected]_Beauvau – c’est pour un signalement has become one of the best parts of French investigative journalism. The lot are collated and analysed on the website of Mediapart, an independent, subscription-based investigative news media.

At the latest count there were 918 attested reports of injuries of different kinds or of police aggression. Dufresne had not expected the police violence to continue beyond those first weeks of the Gilets jaunes. It has, and going through the evidence amassed on the site is daunting, dispiriting and very difficult. One saw many of the individual cases when they first appeared on the net. But it is the assembling of the scenes of beatings, the faces bloodied, swollen and distorted, the missing eyes, the cries and the screams on some soundtracks, that transforms the whole into a profoundly disturbing experience.

Powder kegs

No wonder some fear that there are banlieues little short now of being social powder kegs. In Villeneuve-la-Garenne, where a century and a half ago Alfred Sisley painted idyllic scenes of the Seine just downstream from central Paris and where Taha Bouhafs was arrested, one local association has organised patrols to try to keep things calm. The place was in the news in Week 5 of Macron’s Covid War because a young man on a motorbike was sent flying as an officer in a parked, unmarked, police car opened one of its doors. The police said they had been trying to catch him. From his hospital bed, he sent appeals for calm, for the moment largely successfully.

The activists of Africains du 92 (the number for the Department, the Hauts-de-Seine) may not be so lucky. Go back to that ACAT report. It made the point that, when it came to demonstrations, “Observers reported they were hindered in exercising their mission, subjected to menaces or intimidation as well as acts of violence on the part of the forces of order.”

The Ligue des droits de l’Homme, or Human Rights League, the French equivalent of Liberty, was created in 1898 during the Dreyfus scandal when the Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus was falsely accused of being a spy. It has active members in every part of France. Some have worked as observers at trade union and Gilets jaunes protests, their white over-vests with the League’s name and its red symbol of liberty, the French Revolution’s bonnet phrygien, visible for all of us – and the police – to see.

Marion Guémas, the author of the ACAT report, argues that the authorities see the demonstrations as the problem, not the police practices. “People are afraid of what may happen if they take part in rallies. That shows the gravity of the situation. Observers from the League have been fined on the grounds that they were taking part in an illegal demonstration. And there is an additional problem – if an observer is wounded, their health mutual (the assurance system that funds part of the costs of the French health service) will not help.”

While Marion Guémas and I were talking, Castaner was appearing before an “information session” of the Assembly and, naturally, police behaviour provoked a question or two. “Discernment is the rule,” he claimed when asked how the police were supposed to behave when checking up on people out and about during this confinement. “Out of the total of penalties imposed by the police, I have had very little by way of reports of serious anomalies, they are often alleged, they have appeared on the social networks, and when we have verified them, they were not confirmed.”

The “we” is that IGPN run by a person whose view it is that it should never try to find the police at fault.

In the midnight hours before Castaner’s appearance before the deputies, a divorced man of 34, treated for mental illness since the age of 15, died in the police station in the southern town of Béziers. The Minister was, perhaps, reading his final briefing papers for the parliamentary scrutiny while Mohamed Gabsi was travelling to the station, face down, his hands cuffed round his back, and with an officer sitting on him on the rear seat of a saloon car.

A tiny bit of history before the story continues. About the time when Simon de Montfort, a rapacious warlord and small-time aristocrat from around Paris, led the French king’s armies on a tour of conquest and mayhem in the south, they used the excuse of a crusade against the Albigensian heresy, the Cathars, to extend the king’s rule and their own lands. Béziers refused to hand over Cathar refugees, was besieged and 20,000 were slaughtered by de Montfort’s troops, if we are to believe the Papal ambassador travelling with him. De Montfort’s son went on to become the Duke of Leicester and, some say, the founder of the English parliament.

Maybe, but Béziers today is run by a maverick ultra-right politician, Robert Ménard, who came to fame as one of the founders of Reporters sans Frontiers. He got elected in 2014 with the support of Marine le Pen and consolidated his hold in the latest round of local elections with the votes of 68% of those who went to the polls. Among his first moves were to arm the town’s police (he plastered the town with posters showing a service pistol and declaring “From now on the Police municipale have a new friend”); to ban people from hanging their washing to dry out of the windows of their flats; and to rename a street called after the day peace was signed at the end of the Algerian war in 1962.

The new name was that of a reactionary soldier, Hélie Denoix de Saint Marc, a killer in Indo-China (where one of his lieutenants was Jean-Marie Le Pen, father of Marine), and in Algeria where he took part in an attempted 1961 coup against de Gaulle. After some years in jail, he was pardoned but in his memoires said he would do the same again, given the chance. The sort of soldier de Montfort père would have itched to have at his side while hacking heads off in the town all those centuries earlier. A soldier who, despite what he had done, was three times promoted in the order of the Légion d’honneur by successive presidents: Giscard d’Estaing, Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy. And whose funeral in 2013 was attended by Gerard Collomb, then Socialist Party Mayor of Lyons and, later, Macron’s first Interior Minister.

Ménard runs a tight ship and the town is, some say, cleaner, if a lot more fearful these days. Mohamed was seen just after 10pm in the street, after the start of a coronavirus curfew. Ménard’s police municipale subjected him to what in French is called an “interpellation musclée”, a strong-arm stop and search is a way of putting it, after he is said by those who killed him, to have kicked the rear bumper of a patrol car.

Ménard’s police municipale subjected him to… a strong-arm stop and search… after he is said by those who killed him, to have kicked the rear bumper of a patrol car.

The town’s prosecutor gave his version of the story as Castaner was before the Assembly: “The man was visibly under the influence of alcohol. The municipal police managed to handcuff him with difficulty and then to get him into the back of their vehicle, keeping him on his stomach. An officer then sat on the buttocks of the individual, who was still very agitated, with the intention of controlling him until his arrival at the police station which is some hundreds of metres from the place of the interpellation. He became calm during the brief journey. The three officers affirm that they heard him ‘snoring’, letting them think that he was asleep.” Forty-five minutes later, Mohamed was confirmed dead.

By chance, a member of the Ligue des droits de l’Homme lives just beside the spot where he was stopped. They reported at least four police vehicles blocking the streets at the time. The CCTV installed by Ménard does not cover the area of the arrest but a smart phone video (here) that circulated a day later, shows Mohamed being dragged to one of the police cars. It gives a good idea of what Castaner means when he talks of “discernment”.

Flash-Balls

As Mohammed was dying, five-year-old Mimi was in a specialist rehabilitation unit just outside of Paris, after her skull was fractured by a police projectile. She had been hit on the head two days earlier by a stray Flash-Ball, a nasty lump of rubber and plastic, one of at least fourteen that the police say they fired during a clash with some youths on the Noé housing estate in Chanteloup-Les-Vignes to the north west of Paris, half way down the Seine to the wonderful garden of Claude Monet at Giverny, the one where he created the pond in which his gardeners grew the water lilies that he painted up to the end of his life.

As with the taser, the Défenseur has been a long time critic of the Flash-Ball. Thousands upon thousands have been fired at demonstrators or at youngsters in the streets over the last few years. To get an idea of the sort of incidents concerned, I took one at random from the list of investigations on the Défenseur’s website. This one happened on 2 January 2017.

As I read the document, I thought I was watching Les Misérables, Ladj Ly’s searing film about present day Montfermeil out on the furthest north-west reaches of greater Paris. In cinemas last year when it was voted the best French film, it was inspired by a police beating of a young man, Abdoulaye Fofana in 2008. Ladj Ly filmed that incident – Abdoulaye was one of his neighbours. Probably because of the evidence this provided, the officers ended up in court and were given a short, suspended prison sentence. One told the court that he had struck Abdoulaye because he had been tired, stressed and did not want to aggravate the situation. Go to here to watch Ladj Ly’s video from 2008 to see what “not aggravating” amounts to.

The beating in the entrance to the block of flats is 40 seconds in. Even if you do not understand the French, you will quickly gather the nature of the police, the force they use, and the terrifying experience endured by the family. See if you can spot the bit where his sister explains that one officer threatened her mother with a Flash-Ball gun right in her face.

After that, the January 2017 incident might appear a bit of an anticlimax. We are in Montreuil, nearer in to Paris and with a night-time police patrol. The street lighting has gone down. An officer says he saw a window open with the light in the room on. He thought things could be thrown from it at the patrol. He claimed to know the family involved. He told the Défenseur that, when someone appeared at the window, “For me it was one of the brothers. I knew … that they were liable to throw projectiles at us. I therefore made inferences.” The person disappeared for a moment but then re-appeared, the top part of his body out of the window, “as if he was going to throw himself out of the window, raised his right arm as to throw an object at my colleague. So I did not hesitate for a second, I aimed and fired.”

In Béziers, Ménard threatened legal action against anyone questioning the actions of his force following Mohammed Gabsi’s death. This was not the first time activists of the Ligue in that Department, Hérault, have been faced with legal action for observing and reporting on police behaviour.

Camille Halut, part of the League’s local team of legal volunteers, was arrested in April and again in September 2019 while filming the police in Montpellier, the departmental capital. On both occasions she was wearing that distinctive white vest of the Ligue observers, labelled with its name and the red Phrygian Cap of liberty from the French Revolution. She was held in the police station overnight, one time for 23 hours.

The February before, she had filmed a police officer during an earlier Gilets jaunes demonstration. You may not understand the French, but you will learn a lot about the French police and how they behave, if you watch the short video taken by a young woman in the midst of swirling tear gas, insults and menacing police here. Let it run full screen. As a print journalist, I have found it very difficult to get across the atmosphere of these events, given the political and mainstream media hysteria built around them. Her brief video lets you almost sniff the tear gas in the air and feel the mixture of anger and fear the police provoke.

The individual officer concerned has no identification, is in civilian clothes and looks more like a paunchy thug of a bank robber than a constable under the law. Bizarrely, one of the insults he throws at her is that she is “against democracy”. According to some sources he was the commander of the local Brigade Anti-Criminalité, or BAC, the hit squads of modern local French policing. Behind is another, taller, officer, at least one supposes they are, in a camouflage jacket, hood up, balaclava obscuring their face.

Mobility and reaction is the theme, not links with a community on the ground. This is what the French authorities term “police d’intervention” as opposed to “police de proximité.” Most of the country, urban or rural is not patrolled in any way by police officers. You can guess the nature of the areas where the police are more present on the ground. There is no sense that an individual officer is there to serve the public. “Contact” with the public is never a matter of “Ev’ning All!” but is dominated by “intervention” on the part of often heavily-armed, fast moving squads whose assumption inevitably is that “contact” will mean “confrontation”.

Confrontation

That taser incident involving the 17-year-old at his bed took place at dawn. A total of 15 police were mobilised for a raid on the family home to arrest him on a charge arising from a minor scuffle with police the day before. They blew down the door of the flat and stormed in, leaving the father on the ground with two teeth knocked out and the half-asleep women of the family terrorised, at least one of them handcuffed. (Readers who know and love France, who find all this hard to take and for whom France is bistros, lazy days wandering beautiful châteaux, bagettes still warm from the bakery in an ancient village market, sunbathing on beaches or the fresh air of the mountains, should take a moment to read the Défenseur’s report here).

When you have been at the sharp end of this policing you do not forget it. You become party to one or other of a series of networks of anger, frustration and the unremitting, but unrequited, search for justice.

It could be those involved in one of the last demonstrations before Covid-19 closed off that aspect of democracy; participants in a women’s protest against male violence the night before this International Women’s Day. There were baton charges, clouds of teargas, women dragged by the hair down the stairs to the Métro, women truncheoned on the ground. “So, who does the street belong to?” was a question several victims said was asked by the police beating them.

Or it could be those immediately around some of the individuals whose names virtually everyone in France remembers.

Remi Fraisse was a young green activist taking part in a longstanding protest against the construction of an unnecessary reservoir to help promote the cultivation of maize in an area unsuitable for the crop. He was hit in the back by an explosive grenade and killed on the night of 26 October 2014. The grenade was developed for French military use in clearing trenches in the Great War. It was adopted by the police in 1948 during a bitter miners’ strike in which six strikers were killed and 1,342 sent to jail. It was dropped after his death, but no one has been brought to justice yet for using it on him.

Théo Luhaka, 22-years-old, intervened when he saw police carrying out an “interpellation musclée” in Aulnay-sous-Bois in February 2017. He ended up in hospital with a ten centimetre tear in his anal sphyncter. The police officer concerned said that when his truncheon penetrated Théo’s lower bowel it was a mistake, he had merely been aiming to hit the young man’s thigh to make him bend his leg. Once again there is video, this time from CCTV cameras. Investigations are ongoing, as they say.

Zineb Redouane, 80-years-old, was hit in the face by a tear gas grenade on 2 December 2018 while she was closing the shutters of her fourth floor flat. It looked out toward the central thoroughfare of old Marseilles, the Canebière. Police were tear-gassing a demonstration on the Canebière in protest at the appalling housing conditions in the city: four weeks earlier eight people had died when an old block of flats simply collapsed from years of lack of maintenance. Zineb Redouane died after two days in hospital. She had been speaking to her daughter on the phone when the grenade struck: “The officer targeted me.” Justice is finding it hard, to say the least, to target those responsible.

Cédric Chouviat, 42, was stopped by police on 3 January this year as part of what appears to have been a general control of vehicles and drivers. The police appear to have objected to the fact that he filmed them on his smart phone. He ended up on the ground with an officer kneeling on his back. He died two days later in hospital. A compilation of videos taken by other drivers is here.

Panic

You may recall the case of the boxer who was shown around the world during one of the Gilets jaunes protests in the spring of 2019 leaping down on a footbridge across the Seine to use his fists on the police. What you will not recall, because it was not shown on the media, was the penned-in terror of the thousands I was with just before that moment.

The demonstration was blocked some hundred metres in front. As we were all slowly pushed closer and closer in, the police began tear-gassing the crowd, first the front lines immediately before them – we could hear the crump of the launchers as the grenades were fired off – and then with high, arching trajectories gas grenades were fired above our heads to the ranks well behind us, people still thinking they could move forward. Finally the gas grenades came down onto us. One escape route was that footbridge. Police appeared on the other bank of the river, blocked the way and proceeded to tear-gas those trying to cross the bridge. Choking on the stuff when unable to move in a dense crowd, can reduce even the toughest of minds to a panic.

Then there was the moment when we were returning home from the very middle of Paris walking along a deserted Rue Rivoli from the Hôtel de Ville out to Place de la Bastille. In the distance was a sort of dark mass across the wide boulevard and a strange rhythmic crunching sound getting slowly louder. Bit by bit, a mass of marching police in heavy riot gear moving toward the city centre came into view. There were hundreds of them. Long lines tramping on either side of the road and down the middle, formed the advanced guard for a group of armoured vehicles, including a substantial armoured lorry with water cannon, and then the police mini-buses. Behind all of that were several thousand demonstrators, most in their gilets jaunes chanting against Macron, all in high spirits. And behind them? In my memory there were no more police. The first mass, moving like an army coming to occupy a conquered town, was enough.

Why tell lies?

A few weeks later, we joined a march that came near where we live. It was led by Gilets jaunes who had been injured, people who had lost an eye, had horrible injuries to hands or their faces, several dozen of them. There were people who were deeply angry, but also many who were confused by what had happened to them. When they had first poured out on to the streets, the roundabouts and the squares, they had had no personal experience of this sort of police violence. Nor of the official untruths or the mainstream media hysteria that sought to obscure it from the rest of society. It was one of the few we joined, either trade union or Gilets jaunes, where the police decided to be absent.

Of course, none of this is easy for the police involved. From the perspective of many individual officers it is a disaster. Their numbers have been reduced, yet their hours of work prolonged by the endless rounds of security patrols because of the terrorist threats and mass mobilisations for demonstrations. They lack the proper training in crowd control techniques or in safer individual restraint procedures and are led by commanders imbued with the philosophy of immediate control at all costs.

There are two predictable results. The politics that predominate in the commissariats are that of the far right. Opinion polls have regularly confirmed this over recent years. There are also the rare polling districts entirely taken up by police personnel and their families. In one in Versailles, the Le Pen vote has gone as high as 62 per cent. In another in Nanterre, a long-standing Communist and Left borough on the west side of Paris, the vote has been as high as 52 per cent.

The second result is the knee-jerk plunge into the use of force. The fewer the numbers of police, the more they feel vulnerable, the more instant and violent their actions.

I have kept the first scribbled note I took of the announcement on the breakfast time radio news on Sunday 26 March 2017, of the death of Liu Shaoyo. The announcer said he had been shot by a police officer at the door of his flat as he was trying to stab the officer’s colleague. The local BAC had been called to the flat, they said, because of a report from a neighbour about a family row. All rubbish, except for the fact that Liu Shaoyo was shot dead by a police officer, dressed like the one in the photo at the head of this article, at the door of his flat.

There is a moving description of the feelings of his three daughters in a little book published by Assa Traoré about the struggle for justice of her and her family after her brother Adama was killed by plainclothes gendarmes in the same way as Mohammed Gabsi on 19 July 2016. His half-conscious body, hands cuffed behind his back, was left on the ground in the forecourt of the police station as he struggled with his last gasps of air. Bit by bit the story emerged. How the police told his mother her son was still alive when he was long dead, how they tried to rush the body to burial in Mali before proper autopsies could be done, how his brothers were framed and jailed, how those who came to help were the relatives of others killed by the police, how the lawyer for the three officers directly concerned told the press three months later that “nothing abnormal happened during their mission.”

The central point throughout her Letter to Adama comes in a remark to her by one of those daughters of Liu Shaoyo who she met three days after his assassination: “She did not stop repeating, Why do the police tell lies?”

Those lies are, it has to be said, sometimes quite surreal. In a basement room of the offices of ACAT, I joined a group of relatives of different victims of police violence to discuss an earlier report the ngo had prepared on the use of force by the police. It was March 2016, four months before Adama was killed. The report gave details of four earlier deaths provoked by similar “restraint” techniques.

Worse by far were the accounts of relatives. Those of a 69-year-old from another of the capital’s “banlieus” who had been stopped for a traffic offence and died in hospital two days later with 72 bruises on his body and autopsy evidence of having been subjected to asphyxiating holds by some among the thirty police involved: “We pass them in the street every day.”

Or the parents from Montpellier whose son’s body was found at a roadside on a Sunday with a head wound that the autopsy indicated was probably caused by a police truncheon blow. He had last been seen on the Friday. For days, I could not get out of my head their repeated question: “What did the police do, what happened between the Friday and the Sunday?”

For days, I could not get out of my head their repeated question: “What did the police do, what happened between the Friday and the Sunday?”

The report is available here with the one by Marion Guémas here. They add up to a careful, restrained but powerful indictment of current French police practice alongside the case for a police service that aids the functioning of a democratic society, rather than damages it.

Against democracy

The French authorities just do not do that kind of policing. The concept of policing by consent does not exist. The nearest equivalent was dumped in 2003. There has long been talk of trying some such approach again. With Macron in the Elysée, the Interior Ministry started an experiment covering what is now nearly 50 neighbourhoods and where a Police de Sécurité du Quotidien, a Police for Everyday Security, meant not much more than some more boots on the ground and a bit more money, certainly not any radical new departure in the daily practice of the officers concerned.

The Ministry website explains: “The ‘neighbourhoods of republican re-conquest’ are an essential tool for the security of the French public, for the return of the Republic throughout the land. Everywhere where ‘neighbourhoods of republican re-conquest’ have been installed, their objective is to effectively combat trafficking, prevent radicalisation and re-establish a relationship of confidence with the inhabitants.”

It is not easy to combine defence against cruel and determined killers trying to slaughter as many as possible, the unpredictable individual actions of the mentally unstable and the depredations of drug traffickers with the community-based policing that makes neighbourhoods liveable. But achieving any sort of balance is not what “republican re-conquest” is trying to achieve. The entire trajectory of French policing is based on the idea of submission to authority, not service to citizens. As Assa Traoré writes: “For us, the police is a police of exception whose face is that of the forces of intervention. They do not guarantee our security, they put us in danger.”

In late 2018, a report for the Interior Minister prepared at his request by two Deputies from Macron’s political vehicle, En Marche, proposed a stronger role for the Police municipale and the takeover of certain policing tasks by private security guards. Towards a Global Security explained that it was not proposed to “give lethal weapons to private agents generally” but that tasers should be considered “if only because they have to face individuals who disturb the peace … to face difficult situations and ill-intentioned individuals where just words or physical force alone would be a weak response, above all if they are being targeted as the mark of a form of authority.”

And even though they did not suggest that every private security agent should be given “lethal weapons”, the authors were impressed by what they found at Disneyland. Having explained that private security guards can have pistols and the like if a Prefect gives permission, but that the law says such guns must be carried visibly, they added: “During our visit to Disneyland Paris, we were able to appreciate the professionalism and quality of the armed private security agents. They are all the more effective as their weapons are not apparent, in a place which is above all a leisure park open to the whole public, notably children. We do not see the added value of visibly carrying the weapon, on the contrary, agents currently in post are able to mingle in the crowd more easily only because the public does not know that some armed agents are circulating among them.”

Police officers in France are allowed to carry their service handgun while off-duty as long as it is hidden from view – they are also allowed to use it. Other officers are used in plainclothes operations, as is the case in many countries. More worrying is the presence of such police in demonstrations. These individuals do not follow the rules supposed to make their uniformed colleagues accountable: an individual number (in fact too small to be seen unless you are within the distance from which Ramatoulaye was tasered and, in any case, frequently covered up or just not worn) and a body camera (often either left in the station or just switched off).

Heat of the moment

We live near the Commissariat de Police for the 12th Arrondissement of Paris. It was in the news in 2017 because a police team operating out of it and calling themselves “The Tigers” had been systematically stopping ethnic minority youngsters and recording the results on forms with a tick box labelled “undesirables”. Recording a person’s ethnic origin in France is unlawful, so they went one better. “The Tigers” eventually faced trial, but nothing on the ground has changed.

On our way in 2016 to a trade union rally that was to start from nearby, we passed the police station just as a man walking in front of us was greeted by the officers guarding the entrance. They all shook hands. Being a tad more observant because of that, one noticed a pistol-shaped bulge in the back pocket of his jeans. He simply disappeared into the assembling crowd of demonstrators as we tried to keep up with him. With what purpose in mind? To train to join those private company guards at Disneyland? After Camille Halut took her film, the local leader of the main police trade union, Alliance, explained his fellow officer’s actions thus: “All colleagues have their arm bands except that sometimes they are too large and can fall. One can also choose not to wear it in order to be able to disappear into the crowd and carry out arrests.”

A useful little exercise you might like to carry out is to go back to some the videos and see how many of the officers involved are in civvies and without an armband. My own impression is that they add up to a significant proportion.

One of the authors of Towards a Global Security was Jean-Michel Fauvergue, the boss of the Police Nationale’s special commando group the RAID from 2013 to the moment when Macron became president. He got himself elected to the Assembly the month after the presidential vote. As SARS-Cov-2 moved in, he was helping to finalise a draft law to go before the Assembly based on his report.

After the slaughter in 2015 at the Bataclan, the trio that was left of the terrorist gang, holed up in a fourth floor flat in Saint Denis, part of the northern suburbs of the capital and home to many a “quartier sensible/difficile/chaud/un peu compliqué” depending on which police officer you speak to. Fauvergue’s RAID unleashed its attack on 18 November. The chief prosecutor for Paris said at first that they had fired 5,000 bullets. Later it became a matter of just 1,576 spent police cartridges found at the scene. Fauvergue claimed they had been under intense fire from AK47s. In reality, the three only had a pistol and 11 bullets. He was even cited by one paper as saying that a grenade thrown from the flat rolled toward his feet.

Before he jumped ship to join the Macronie, he prepared ghosted memoires, published under the title Facing the Terrorists, once he was safely in the Assembly. He had no choice, he explained, but to order “saturation fire” of guns, stun grenades and gas on the terrorists (it continued for hours after they had been killed). And those claims about their supposed firepower? “I spoke in the heat of the moment … a human mistake.”

One who acts in the heat of the moment is Alexandre Benalla. Among the earliest members of the Macron team was Ismaël Emelien. He had worked for a while at the DGSE, France’s MI6 equivalent, and got to know another officer, an ex-soldier by the name of Ludovic Chaker. Emelien was the strategy adviser for Macron in 2016, helping him work out how to stab President Hollande in the back and get the job for himself. He took on Chaker as “Director of Operations”. In turn, Chaker took on Benalla to be Macron’s minder.

With ambitions beyond just making sure that the public did not get too close to his boss, Benalla planned a far more important role. In the spring of 2018, when a gilet jaune was still merely the high-viz vest every French driver has to make sure is in their car boot, he and Chaker were developing plans for a special presidential security team reporting directly to Macron. Then everything went wrong on the May Day march.

Not realising it was Benalla, the individual closest to Macron other than his wife Brigitte, I watched a bulky man with a particular sort of rolling way of moving, wearing a regulation police riot helmet but no other apparent identification. He would come out with a couple of others from behind a dense line of riot police, rush at a loose mass of the so-called Black Blocks (from their head to toe black clothing), scoop one up and half drag, half carry them behind the police ranks.

The presence of these Black Blocks was a regular feature of any substantial trade union rally. A group of a few hundred would smash a bank window or some other symbol of wealth and then engage in a rather ritual exchange of stones, gas grenades and projectiles with the police who would then let them get back to their vandalism. This sort of thing started with the first of the union rallies against employment law reform under President Hollande. A couple of hundred individuals who never did this at any other time, reduced the route for a march by tens of thousands to a scene of destruction, spiced with clouds of teargas, suitable for news photographs to speed around the world. All, as hundreds of police let them get on with it.

Just before I noticed the individual who turned out to be Benalla, I watched a youngish person, all in black and their face masked, take a metal bar out of their back pack and carefully smash all the glass at a bus shelter while the riot police stood impassively in line, just five metres away. Aside from me, no one else was near.

A couple of hours later, several hundred metres away across the Seine, someone with a smart phone took a video of a bulky individual with a particular gait making an “interpellation musclée” of a young couple as the day’s events were coming to a close. The video went up on the net (extracts can be found here) but it was a while before anyone twigged that it was Alexandre Benalla. By then, the police had quietly handed over CCTV footage of the incident to the Elysée, both of them hoping that the rest of us would never know that the President’s personal body guard had a peculiar hobby of engaging in rather nasty police violence, though he was never a properly registered police officer.

A “State of law”

Which brings us back to that phrase by Macron.

Note the word “State” carries a capital letter. Most of the times I have seen it repeated in the French media, it is written thus: Etat. French does not use the capital letter as frequently as English. Is there a reason why it is Etat and not état? Perhaps we can find it in the declaration by Macron in March, as SARS-Cov-2 advanced, that “The State is holding.” An echo of General de Gaulle’s remark that, as President, he was “The guide for France and the guarantor of the State.” It is part of the Jupiterian approach that dominates the relationship between citizen and authority in the French Fifth Republic established after the general’s coup d’état in 1958.

Notice also what Macron says is inacceptable. He targets the words, not the actions. Explore how that so neatly gets to the core of Macron’s public practice as you watch for a second time the video of Ramatoulaye’s chance meeting with eight men from Castaner’s Police Nationale.

And, as we started with a video, let’s finish with one. Five days after Ramatoulaye went shopping, Sofiane, 21 and from Les Ulis, on the south-west outskirts of greater Paris, was on his way to his job as a delivery worker for Amazon. He admits that, at the moment he saw a plainclothes police patrol, he panicked and ran because he did not have the permit form with him. Watch the video here and don’t make the mistake of thinking the first cries you hear from him are going to be the last.

How will we work after coronavirus?

The pandemic has profoundly changed our working lives. Millions have lost their jobs; others have had no choice but to continue working at great risk to their health. Many more have shouldered extra unpaid labour such as childcare.

Work has also been redefined. Some workers are defined as 'essential' – but most of them are among the lowest-paid in our societies.

Could this be an opportunity?

Amid the crisis, there has been a rise in interest in radical ideas, from four-day weeks to universal basic income.

Join openDemocracy at 5pm UK time/6pm CET on 4 June as we discuss whether the pandemic might finally be a moment for challenging our reliance on work.

Hear from

David Graeber Author of 'Bullshit Jobs' and Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics.

Other panellists will be announced soon.

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