Show caption A Liverpool fan is held by officers of France’s gendarmerie at the Champions League Final against Real Madrid on 28 May 2022. Photograph: Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters France French police under spotlight over Liverpool fans’ treatment Crowd control tactics at Champions League final highlight rift between law officers and public in France Jon Henley @jonhenley Mon 30 May 2022 15.02 BST Share on Facebook
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Television images of Liverpool fans being casually teargassed and pepper-sprayed at the Stade de France before Saturday’s chaotic Champions League final have – not for the first time – trained a spotlight on France’s policing methods.
Organisations from Amnesty International to the UN’s high commissioner for human rights have criticised France’s crowd control tactics, with Human Rights Watch detailing the extensive physical injuries caused by weapons from truncheons to teargas grenades, rubber bullets and larger “flash-ball” rubber pellets on peaceful citizens in recent years.
A video of four white officers brutally beating an unarmed black music producer in his Paris studio in November 2020 was the latest in a string of violent incidents to cause widespread outrage, prompting President Emmanuel Macron to act.
Announcing a series of reforms last year aimed at improving relations between the police and public as well as improving officers’ working conditions, Macron said French police must be “above reproach” and “when there are mistakes, they must be punished”.
Long a taboo subject, French policing – viewed by its many critics as instinctively repressive and favouring disproportionate force – has become a major political issue, especially since the gilets jaunes protests of 2018 and 2019, in which an estimated 2,500 protesters were injured, with several losing eyes or a limb.
At least 1,800 police and gendarmes were injured in the same protests, according to interior ministry figures, however, and French police argue they are the target of growing violence, some of it extreme and deliberately aimed at maiming or even killing.
Experts say part of the present problem is an intake of hastily recruited, poorly trained officers since the 2015 Paris terror attacks, when entry requirements were lowered and training cut from 12 months to eight – with trainees on duty after three.
But there are underlying issues, too – the principal one being the fundamental relationship between France’s police and the public. French police and gendarmes generally see themselves not as servants of the people but as protectors of the state and government.
That is certainly how most French people see the French national civil police force and officers from the military gendarmerie – many of whom will have been posted to communities hundreds of miles removed from their own.
One criminologist, Sebastian Roché, says the French police are “wired to be insulated from society, to respond only to the executive”. Combined with France’s centuries-long tradition of political street protest, that produces an explosive cocktail.
Wary of the street, French politicians – particularly in the interior ministry – have long shielded the police, entrenching a deep lack of public trust. Macron himself said in 2019: “Do not speak of police violence or repression – such words are unacceptable in a state under the rule of law.”
There is also, many French NGOs and community groups say, very clearly a problem of widespread racism. Nor does France have an independent police watchdog: the IGPN inspectorate that investigates abuse allegations is made up mostly of police officers.
Jacques de Maillard, a researcher specialising in police issues, says France’s police force faces “structural problems, in terms of recruitment, training, philosophy and management”.
Most officers, he says, join the police for good reasons. But once on the job, de Maillard told France24 television, they face an uphill battle – underfunded, overworked and constantly criticised. “It’s exhausting, frustrating and it breeds resentment,” he said. In 2019, 59 French police officers committed suicide.
Greater investment, better training and stricter recruitment procedures focusing on interpersonal skills would all help, experts say. But the key problem remains that of the French police’s profoundly adversarial relationship with the public.
“The system needs to be completely reassessed,” said de Maillard, “beginning with practices on the ground, and making the proportionate use of force, and good relations with the public, the absolute priorities.”