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When are French police permitted to use tear gas?

As French police officers' use of tear gas is once again in the news, here are the rules in place governing the usage of 'gaz lacrymogène' in France.

When are French police permitted to use tear gas?
A police officer clashes with a protesters in a cloud of tear gas at the annual May Day rally (Photo by AFP)

Images of French police officers using tear-gas on fans – including children – at the Champions League final in Paris caused shock and outrage around the world.

Just a week later, French policing techniques came to the forefront again when officers used tear gas to disperse travellers – including women and children – at Paris’ Gare de l’Est train station who were attempting to board replacement buses after trains were cancelled due to storms.

So are there any restrictions on how police use tear gas?

Here are the rules: 

According to French penal code, any police officer “responsible for public security or any other judicial police officer wearing the insignia of their position” is allowed to use force to disperse a gathering after two failed attempts to ask the crowd to disperse to disperse

However, officers can use force, including tear gas, without first asking the crowd to disperse in cases of “direct force or violence against police” or if the territory the police are defending has been “invaded” – in those circumstances using tear gas is the decision of the individual officer.

In all of these scenarios, officers must only use force if it is “absolutely necessary,” and it must be used “proportionately to the disorder” and it must “end when the disorder has ceased.”

However, in response to recent incidents, several opposition politicians have called into question policing techniques and what they see as indiscriminate use of tear gas for crowd control.

Centrist Julien Bayou tweeted: “After the tear-gassing of fans and children, this brutality against people who only wanted to get on a bus is unacceptable”.

Which tools can be used?

Police officers in France are allowed to use tear gas canisters/ bombs (bombe/gaz lacrymogène) or pepper spray (aérosol anti-agression/ gaz poivre). Individual officers usually have small cans of pepper spray that they can spray directly at an individual, while at demos you will often see canisters letting off large clouds of tear gas.

Tear gas is not the only crowd-control tool that French police officers have – rubber bullets, stun grenades, also known as flash bombs (Grenade à effet de souffle), stingball grenades (Grenade de désencerclement) and water cannons (Canon à eau) are frequently used when policing large crowds. 

READ MORE: French police blasted for maiming ‘yellow vests’ with tear gas and rubber bullets

Chemical ‘defensive’ sprays are considered weapons in France, and therefore they cannot be sold to under 18s. The canisters that exceed 100ml in size are strictly reserved for agents of the law, such as police officers, CRS and gendarmes.  

Tear gas is actually prohibited in wartime by the International Chemical Weapons Convention, but it is allowed to be used to maintain order internally in countries so that police can disperse crowds without lethal intention.

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READER QUESTIONS

Reader question: Do French police have the right to see my ID?

French police have some quite surprisingly wide-ranging powers that apply to everyone in France, whether resident or visitor.

Reader question: Do French police have the right to see my ID?

The Local subscribers in France are no doubt, responsible and law-abiding people – but, even so, it is very possible that they will find themselves in situations that involve contact with the police.

One reason for police to stop an ordinary civilian is for a contrôle d’identité (identity check). This is when a police officer stops to check your identity. 

This can only happen under certain conditions: 

  • the officer suspects you have committed or will commit a crime; 
  • you are in a ‘dangerous’ location where crime is known to occur; 
  • the public prosecutor has ordered a particular area to be watched; 
  • or you are operating a motorised vehicle (a contrôle routière).

If you’re driving, officers have the power to pull you over for an identity check – even if you were driving safely and within the speed limit – and a search of the vehicle and/or luggage may be carried out.

If you refuse to provide proof of identity, the police can find you guilty of refusing to obey or find you guilty of contempt and rebellion. Really.

READ ALSO ‘Don’t mess with French cops’ – Top tips for dealing with police in France

If you are not carrying any document that could prove your identity, the officer can take you to a police station to check your identity there. If this happens, the verification process must not last longer than four hours from the first request for ID – in Mayotte, this period is eight hours.

If you maintain your refusal to be identified, or if there is no other means of establishing your identity, the public prosecutor or the investigating judge may authorise the taking of fingerprints and photos.

Refusing to submit to fingerprinting or having a photograph taken is punishable by a fine of up to €3,750 and three months in prison.

Activists and NGOs argue that police practice racial profiling when they perform ID checks and it’s true that these ‘random’ checks seem to happen more frequently to people of colour.  

READ ALSO What to do if you are arrested in France

Non-French citizens who are resident in France may also have to prove their right to residency – a passport or residence permit is acceptable as, importantly, is the confirmation of anyone with you who is either a French citizen or legally resident in France.

READ ALSO EXPLAINED: What are your legal rights as a foreigner in France?

In France, it is strongly recommended that you carry some form of ID at all times, just in case you are stopped by officials. In fact, no text obliges you to have an identity card but if you are subject to an identity check, the procedure will take longer if you cannot present an appropriate document.

French citizens have ID cards, but if you’re not French then a passport or residency card such as a carte de séjour are the most usual ways to prove ID. 

Equally, you may be required to prove your identity for any number of administrative reasons – which makes it easier to have some form of ID with you.

These include, for example, the following situations:

  • Examination or competition;
  • Registration at Pôle Emploi;
  • Registering on electoral rolls and voting in elections;
  • Certain banking operations (payment by cheque, withdrawal at the counter of your bank);
  • Picking up a parcel from the post office
  • A trip abroad
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