"What we are observing is the culmination of a long history which is over twenty years old"


Emmanuel Macron called on members of the security forces to "the greatest ethics", after the denunciation of several cases of violence, during the demonstration of January 9 against the pension reform.

The terms chosen had never been so explicit. In a few days, Christophe Castaner, Edouard Philippe and Emmanuel Macron all recognized the existence of gestures by members of the police who did not correspond to their duty of exemplarity. Without using the expression "police violence", the President of the Republic thus denounced, Tuesday January 14, "behaviors that are not acceptable" on the part of the police, during demonstrations against the pension reform. He charged thehe Minister of the Interior to formulate "very concrete proposals" for "improve ethics" police officers.

If the executive has not explained the reasons for this sudden awareness, Christophe Castaner alluded, speaking of "ethical stumbling block", to a video filmed on January 9 in Toulouse, which shows a police officer tripping a demonstrator (he has been identified, and an investigation has been opened). Other images shot the same day, in Paris this time, led to the opening of three other investigations. Christophe Castaner also met the family of Cédric Chouviat on Tuesday, who died after an arrest in Paris in early January.

These cases are part of a broader context: the subject of police violence against demonstrators emerged in public debate during the movement of "yellow vests" (the police, too, denounced the violence of the demonstrators at their respect). To understand the multiplication of cases, and to know if the speech of the executive can be followed by acts, Franceinfo interviewed Fabien Jobard. This CNRS research director is the co-author of several books and articles on French police, including Police, sensitive issues (with Jérémie Gauthier) and Splendid isolation: French policing policies (with Olivier Filleule). He had already replied to Franceinfo, at the time of the Theo affair.

Franceinfo: Several cases of police violence have been reported in the context of demonstrations against the pension reform. The videos of these acts recall scenes already observed during the movement of "yellow vests". Are you seeing a shift towards more violence in maintaining order in France?

Fabien Jobard: It is certain that since the movement against the Labor law (in 2016), there is a radicalization of police practices. The movement of "yellow vests" has amplified this radicalization. It was a movement that police officials had not seen coming and the demonstrators broke with the traditional modes of protest.

What we observe is also the culmination of a long history, which is more than 20 years old. In the 1990s and 2000s, the main concern was not really the protests. We closed squadrons of mobile gendarmes, reduced the staff of the CRS… We wanted small units to fight against urban violence, especially in the Paris region.

When the big demonstrations returned, in 2016, we did with the means we had, which were no longer necessarily suitable. So the police officers, the prefects and Christophe Castaner fall back on their feet saying that after the order of dispersal, we are no longer in demonstration, but in "urban riot", expression chosen by the Minister. It was not at all like we conceived, and treated, the same disorders, 20 years ago.

Now that the protests have returned to a more classic form, chis radicalization of police practices continues. How do you explain it?

Having not taken part in the demonstrations against the pension reform – at least as a researcher – I cannot answer specifically on these. What is certain is that the police equipment is not suitable for crowd management: we do not take out the LBD in front of people who are advancing online. It is made to be used in self-defense or from a distance, not in contact to prevent a group of demonstrators from advancing. The instruction of September 2, 2014 (which governs the use of LBD) is very clear on this. It also specifies: "The head is not aimed".

I am not sure either that the mindset of the staff was considered as it should be. When for months it was said and reiterated that the police and gendarmes had never committed any abuse, that most of the open investigations were closed for lack of identifying the agents, when the officials and the politicians urged to contact , even though we know that over-employed and exhausted staff are involved, abuse is no longer accidental, it is inevitable. Today, moreover, the context of general exhaustion is unchanged: in Paris, there are sometimes still several large demonstrations per week.

What determines the behavior of the police, at these times?

Sociologically, it is difficult to know what is going on in the mind of an individual. There are always individual slippages in all organizations. However, there are also systemic dysfunctions. In maintaining order, there is a chain of command, at the top of which is the prefect, and therefore the political. The repetition of the events and the absence of inflection of the political speech during months make that, if one can always sanction individual police officers, the reflexion must relate to the responsibility of the politician.

The more the agents are exhausted, the more it is necessary for the hierarchy to keep a cool head.Fabien Jobardat franceinfo

Laurent Nunez urged "go to contact", and this is an expression that has multiplied at the prefectural level. The maintenance of order, which had as a principle the distancing of troublemakers by the police, changed into a search for contact. This was the political line, said and repeated.

Is the violence reported an illustration of a mentality problem within the police?

I'm going to be a little "old school": in policing, the police obey the command. He does not have to have a particular mentality. The policeman can have all the contempt he wants for the demonstrator, he should only use force when the authorized authority orders him to, or in case of strict self-defense. It is extremely framed. This differs, for example, from the patrols of the anti-crime brigade (BAC), where the hierarchy is less present and where the agents have a very wide margin of appreciation. As a matter of fact, we have introduced into the law enforcement systems personnel of this type of unit, without necessarily ensuring that they are placed in a strict chain of command, as is the case with the CRS or mobile gendarmes.

Police are singled out in another recent case: the death of Cédric Chouviat, as a result of asphyxiation "with larynx fracture", after having suffered a ventral tackle during his arrest. Does the use of such a contested technique, outside of an event, still fit into the context of radicalization of the practices you describe?

The problem of technical gestures used to control an individual is an old one. In the past ten years, there has been at least one death per year, due to strangulation, tackling or folding (according to the Bastamag site census). I do not really believe that it is conceivable to deprive the police of the possibility of using these techniques. After all, they are equipped with guns.

On the other hand, like what I said about the LBD, the more dangerous a weapon, the more the recall of the rules concerning its use is essential. Controlling someone is one thing, pressing them to the ground until they fracture their larynx is another. We can train in mastering gestures, but always remember this question: "Do I really need to use this technique right now?". We can discuss ethics as much as we want, but force, if it is fair, obeys only two principles: necessity and proportionality.

In general, do the police have a positive view of the rules and controls exercised over their actions?

There are police officers who see the rule of law as an imperative, because it is the law, and others who see it as an impediment to carrying out their legitimate mission, which is to arrest troublemakers. Sociology has been clear on this for 60 years and in all countries: the police are divided on the issue. So the role of the hierarchy and the politician is always to remember the rule. However, when the police are in a tense situation, as has been the case in recent years, the Minister of the Interior on the contrary is afraid of his police and, rather than repeating the rule, hides behind the main body and returns inaudible the voice of the law.

These last days seem to mark an evolution on this point, in the speech of Emmanuel Macron as Christophe Castaner. For you, is this a real inflection, which could be followed by effects on the ground, or only by communication?

In a structure as hierarchical as the police, communication cannot be without effect. The public speech of the Minister of the Interior falls on three pairs of ears: that of public opinion, that of the police unions and that of the police itself. What may seem moderate for public opinion and already outrageous for unions, will be understood as imperative by the police hierarchy. There, the signal is sent to the heads of service, or even to the central directors, that at the next blunder, there is a real risk that they "jump". So they echo this speech. When the minister bends his position by a few degrees, it is possible that the central directorates bend theirs with a multiplying coefficient.

The future national policing scheme (in development) will be decisive and will give directions for the coming years. When an institution as massive as the police is engaged in a given direction, the inertia is very strong and it takes a lot of force to take the opposite direction. A strong political will, therefore.

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