PARIS – With the declaration that their jobs have become increasingly dangerous due to the government’s failure to address France’s underlying social problems, thousands of police officers demonstrated in Paris on Wednesday in a show of force that made politicians scramble.
Police union leaders have demanded stricter laws for violence against officers and stricter sentences against convicted criminals, while thousands of people collapsed in the rain in front of the National Assembly. They issued warnings to political leaders who were present but not invited to speak.
“Your presence is an important sign,” said Fabien Vanhemelryck, secretary general of Alliance Police, a legal union whose members appear to be dominating the protest, from a stage next to a giant screen. “It may not be a sign of future elections, but a wake-up call, a sense of responsibility, change and a return to security.”
The protest, organized by 14 police unions, took place after the recent assassination of an officer and a police employee, even as pressure increased to reform a force often criticized for its cruel tactics and racist behavior .
With the theme of crime already dominating the political debate a year before the presidential election, the protest drew leaders from almost all the political parties of France. The criticism of the official policy puts the government of President Emmanuel Macron in an awkward situation and threatens to overshadow a rare bunch of good news on Wednesday, as restaurants and cafes nationwide are partially reopened after months of pandemic restrictions.
Gérald Darmanin – the powerful interior minister and head of the national police – joined the protest when officials called to him: “We need your help.”
In a rare case of a minister joining a protest against his own government, Mr. Darmanin said he was simply expressing his solidarity, while political opponents said he was effectively protesting against himself. Mr. Darmanin was at the head of the government’s efforts to ward off Marine Le Pen, the far-right leader and Macron’s main challenge.
The issue of crime has directly affected the fortunes of French politicians and parties over the past two decades, and is expected to be done again in the coming months as France seeks to pull itself out of the devastation caused by the pandemic. On Wednesday, some political figures on the left joined the protest and spoke loudly about crime, although government statistics do not show the kind of crime that is being prosecuted by politicians.
Fabien Roussel, the leader of the French Communist Party, recently launched his presidential campaign with an emphasis on crime.
In an interview, Mr. Roussel said that “there is a kind of normalization of violence today” and that he “wants to ensure that we can provide security to all”, with words and a tone usually heard from right-wing politicians.
“It is no longer possible to neglect this issue,” he said.
France is one of the few Western democracies with a centralized police force, and its 150,000-member national force is one of the most powerful constituencies in the country. Because it falls under the direct authority of the Interior Ministry, the protest was “a demonstration of defiance against the government”, he said. Fabien Jobard, a political scientist specializing in policing.
Protesters begin paying tribute to Eric Masson, an officer killed in an anti-drug operation in the southern city of Avignon, and Stéphanie Monfermé, a police officer who was killed in a terrorist attack at a police station in the city of Rambouillet, near Paris .
The number of police officers injured during service has almost doubled over the past 15 years, from 3,842 in 2004 to 6,760 in 2019, during a year marked by violent protests against the yellow vest, according to figures of the Ministry of Interior.
Mr. Macron recently made efforts to respond to police concerns. He promised to recruit 10,000 extra police officers by the end of his current term and ride with officers in a drug-trafficking area of the city of Montpellier.
While police leaders demanded stricter laws, they also attributed crime to the failure of successive governments to deal with France’s social problems, from the poor integration of immigrant children to problems in the country’s schools.
Linda Kebbab, a representative of Unity SGP Working Police Force, the largest police union, said police are often confronted with ‘the collective failure of the state over the past 40 years’ in implementing proper social and educational policies, especially in impoverished areas with major crime. Instead, she said, officers have become the last resort to ensure security in those areas at their own risk.
“We are being sacrificed,” she said in an interview.
Daniel Chomette, a representative of Alliance Police and a police officer for 34 years, said the officers often had the “impression that they were working for nothing.”
“The police are being asked to solve all the problems of society, even if they present us with an obstacle,” he said. Chomette said as protesters held up signs behind him with the message: ‘Pay to serve, not to die. ‘
Police have rejected proposals to reform their methods, such as banning suffocation, and open themselves up to greater investigations into racism. Police unions have also recently broken off months-long talks with the government on potential reforms.
Controversy over deadly and brutal police interventions sparked huge protests against police last year. A controversial security law empowering police drew thousands of protesters to the street when video footage showed the brutal beatings of a black music producer, Michel Zecler, in his own Paris studio by officers.
While leaders of the police force in the protest on Wednesday stressed that their duty was to protect French citizens, national power is often seen as protecting the interests of the state. A recent poll showed that 27 per cent of respondents said they viewed the police with ‘anxiety’ or ‘hostility’.
“The police play a very strong role in protecting the political regime in France,” he said. Jobard, the police expert, said, adding that they often “feel that politicians are using it as a firewall, as a shield.”
Despite the intensified debate over uncertainty, crime in France increased from the 1970s to the mid-1980s before declining and stabilizing. Government data shows that almost all major crimes are now lower than a decade or three years ago.
The French homicide per capita – 1.16 per 100,000 people in 2018 – was about the same as most parts of Britain, according to European Commission data, while Germany’s rate was 0.76. France’s rate was much lower than the United States, which in 2018 was five per 100,000 people, according to FBI data.