Do the French police really use only ‘legitimate violence’?

Do the French police really use only 'legitimate violence'?
Illustration photo: AFP
France's new interior minister has caused a bit of a stir by denying the use of the term police violence and saying that the French police use only 'legitimate violence'. So why has this caused outrage and what's the issue with the French police?

Who said what?

The comments were made by Gérald Darmanin, the new interior minister who took over the role at the start of July after a cabinet reshuffle.

He's a controversial appointment as he's under investigation in relation to a rape allegation from 2009, which France's appeal court has ordered should be reinvestigated. So if he is questioned during the probe, it would be by the very police officers that he is now nominally in charge of. He denies the allegation.

Gérald Darmanin at the French parliament. Photo: AFP

At an appearance before the Assemblée nationale on Tuesday, Darmanin said: “When I hear the term 'police violence', personally I choke.

“The police do exercise violence, but legitimate violence.

“They must do it in a proportional way, they must do it in a controlled way. If a few people do it outside the rules of professional ethics, the punishment must be immediate.

Why have his comments caused controversy?

It's because police violence has become a hot topic in France, with many groups saying that police use routine and indiscriminate violence, particularly against people of colour.

France has seen its own Black Lives Matter protests in recent weeks, many lead by Assa Traore, whose brother Adama died in police custody in 2016.

READ ALSO Who is Adama Traore and why are there protests across France in his name?

His is one of several cases of young black or Arab men who have died after contact with the police that have sparked protests.

French police also face allegations of excessive violence in their policing of the 'yellow vest' protests which gripped France for more than a year and during which hundreds of protesters have been seriously injured, along with 1,200 police officers who were hurt during the weekly protests.

READ ALSO How the 'yellow vests' forced France to have a national conversation about police violence


Black Lives Matter protests in France. Photo: AFP

The other reason that Darmanin's comment cause controversy was his use of the word 'choke'.

The police use of the controversial 'chokehold' technique was briefly banned by Darmanin's predecessor as interior minister Christophe Castaner.

But Castaner had to backtrack in the face of protests by the police and was later replaced.

So what's Darmanin doing about the allegations of police violence?

Well one of this first moves was to give the police a bonus. 

He and French president Emmanuel Macron paid a surprise late-night visit to two Paris police units and used the visit to announce a €10 million funding boost for officers who work at night.

Officers and police unions had demanded greater backing from the government and staged their own protest against the ban on chokeholds with hundreds of officers symbolically throwing their handcuffs down on the streets.

He has also called for recommendations around allegations of racist language from police officers to be implemented immediately, and for police officers who do commit unjustified violence to be punished immediately.

Do the police have cause for complaint?

There's no doubt that being a police officer in France is a difficult job and the country's law enforcement have all been on high alert ever since the wave of terror attacks rocked the country in 2015.

There is a significant problem of long hours and a lack of holiday and rest days due to short staffing and they then faced more than a year of weekly protests from 'yellow vests' at many of which police officers were violently attacked.

In some areas, particularly the poorer Paris suburbs, tensions between police and the local community are very high and officers frequently come under attack.

Suicide rates among French police officers are extremely high and unions say that many of their members are at the end of their tether and exhausted from the constant pressure.

READ ALSO 'It's a massacre' – one French police officer commits suicide ever four days




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