Is police violence in France surprising?



The problem perhaps lies at a much deeper level, in the asymmetry of the relationship between the police and the non-police

Every day there is talk of police violence. Few issues have so stirred up emotions everywhere. I could point out what I wrote in my 2009 article “Violence, but for what”[1]: “the first image of violence, as soon as one arrives at the train station or airport in France, is the police. I have never seen so many policemen in France as I do now, especially in Paris […] And what policemen!: an air of brutality and arrogance that defies comparison. When we make the slightest objection – for example, at identity checks and baggage searches before boarding the train, never before seen – we feel that we are on the verge of arrest, aggression and the accusation of 'resisting the forces of order'”, and that we react with indignation when we learn about police crimes through the media. There are times when you prefer, looking back, to have overdone it. Not the case here.[2]

Often, the words “police violence” and “racism” are uttered together. With reason. Both everyday experience and statistics show that migrants, or from a migrant family, especially Africans, are right to fear the police, even if they have done “nothing wrong”. In September 2020, Minister of the Interior Castaner admitted, albeit lip service, the existence of a “problem of racism” in the police and announced measures to combat the problem. He was stripped of the ministry a few days later, in the face of police indignation. At the same time, a large demonstration in Paris was protesting racist violence attributed to the “forces of order”. The issue has returned with force very recently – at a bad moment for the government – ​​with the “beating” of Michel Zecler, a black man.

Is violence committed by the police, however, limited to a matter of racism? There are doubts. While it's not true that "everyone hates the police"[3] (In reality, a part of the population adores it and never tires of it, and the programs of right-wing and extreme right parties are basically reduced to the promise of strengthening the police and leaving them completely free to act), it seems certain that “the police hate everybody”. The gilets jaunes attacked in demonstrations were, after all, undoubtedly Gallic.

Are the French police deeply racist? One policeman stated, Le Monde, that she is no more than other professional circles in which he had already worked.[4] It might even be true, because racism is everywhere. However, an insurance agent typically has far less opportunity to vent his racism through physical violence than a police officer, and should confine himself to making silly “jokes”.

Surveys show that in most European countries, police vote for far-right parties in far greater proportions than other voters. We are also aware of the many contacts, past or present, between police circles and fascist (or even terrorist) groups.

If the policing problem were limited, however, to these “extreme” facts, perhaps it could be solved with better selection and training and by expelling the “bad apples” from the corporation. Pure souls might believe that with longer police training, going from eight to twelve months, everything would be different. Or even, that it would be enough for a trainer to say that you shouldn't hit a black person from the periphery without reason for them to stop doing it...

Increasing the “diversity” of the corporation is also proposed as a solution. However, police officers in Nigeria are often even less polite to their citizens than their French counterparts! And in this case, it can't even be a question of racism...

The problem can then be located at a much deeper level: the asymmetry of the relationship between the police and the non-police. The explanation is easy: take someone, arm him to the teeth, put him in a corporation where colleagues always defend themselves without arguing, let him call in reinforcements at the slightest sign of trouble, decide that not obeying him immediately constitutes a crime of “resisting the forces of order” or “disregarding a public official” – even if it is just a question of responding in a tone other than “respectful”.

Ensure that virtually any treatment inflicted on the citizen by the police officer is taken care of by his/her colleagues, and later by superiors; that reports made in comradeship or clearly falsified are commonplace, while the victim is accused and convicted, even against all evidence. Provide even – in the very small probability of the police officer being investigated, when there are undeniable images – that he is judged first by his own colleagues (the “police police”) and almost always acquitted.

Ultimately, even in the even slimmest likelihood that his case will make it to court, he will either be acquitted or given a small sentence, quickly returning to work. Also make sure that in case of conviction, even slight, he receives unconditional solidarity from his colleagues and that the police unions – they are indeed “in the process of being radicalized” – organize demonstrations in the streets (without prior authorization), which part of the political forces make him a martyr and collect money for his defense. So how can it be surprising that many police officers cannot resist the temptation to commit misdeeds with impunity?

Asymmetrical relationships easily lead to abuse, especially if it is not sanctioned. A situation of impunity like this certainly awakens in many people their latent sadism, or at least a more or less strong desire for omnipotence. It can even be assumed that sadism and the desire for power constitute a powerful motivation, conscious or unconscious, to join the forces of order. It is not necessary that all police officers be sadistic bullies: if there are many of them and if they act with impunity (even with the approval of superiors), they set the tone for the rest.

An asymmetry inscribed even in the marble of laws: aggression against a police officer (or certain other categories of public officials) is punished, according to the law, more severely than that of a “normal” human being. We thus return to the laws of antiquity, such as the Code of Hammurabi, from 1750 BC., which punishes violence against the master and against the slave in a very different way… It is written in the courts that “the law is equal for all”, but clearly the cops are a bit more equal than everyone else, like the pigs in Orwell's fable.

Here are the consequences: a non-servile attitude towards the police is seen as provocation, with incalculable consequences. It is necessary to treat agents as superior beings. People have been killed by the police after a simple verbal argument, like delivery man Cédric Chouviat. One can say “leave me alone, idiot” to everyone. Even when told to the boss, at most one runs the risk of dismissal. In the case of the police, however, you risk your life (the only other environment in which this happens is in gangs!), or, at the very least, being beaten up and accused of “contempt”.

Let’s look at three banal examples, without violence, but which show the terrain in which violence springs up:

(a) A young woman from a European country arrives at the airport in Paris, where she lives. For no understandable reason, she is detained at length by the border police and interrogated. When she is finally released, she mutters through her teeth “What nonsense!”. "What did you say? Come back!". New controls, new intimidation – immediate punishment for crimes of high treason (personal testimony).

(b) A retired police officer goes to the police station to file a complaint for whatever reason. Having waited a long time, he begins to complain. The tone rises and his former colleagues adopt a threatening posture. Ultimately, he narrowly escapes arrest (letter to a local newspaper).

(c) Military police, during a routine check, stop a car. The driver introduces himself as a civil police officer. Due to rivalry between corporations, military police carefully examine the car until they find a reason for a fine. The civil policeman, very irritated, leaves with screeching tires. He is then stopped by the military police again, who give him a new fine for “dangerous driving” (testimonial in online media).

Yes, the police hate everyone. Everyone has the right to hate other human beings. However, when you are given weapons, accomplices and the guarantee of "being covered", you have a problem...

In no other European country today does the government show so much of being under the orders of its own police. Why ? Perhaps this government feels that if the police stop protecting it for even a week, it will go down the drain...

PS Obviously, we can wonder about the individual qualities ofthe policemen. Undoubtedly, there are those who risk their lives to save a child. One can, on the other hand, place all the blame on a specific government and convince yourself that another government would give very different orders to its armed wing. However, the essential resides elsewhere: these are all situations where human beings can pretty much do whatever they want a Outros devido to its institutional role. essand is the profoundly disturbing result ofo “Experiment of imprisonment of Stanford”, from 1971, adopted in theme of a recent film: the simple fact that stop an almost absolute power over other people can, even without specific incentive, transform individuals (of which no one would suspect, not even themselves) in sadistic torturers. That would be part of “human nature” ou would be the consequence of se live in an oppressive society? Ice Cream a great question for the nights quarantined! 

*Anselm Jappe is a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Sassari, Italy, and author, among other books, of Credit to death: The decomposition of capitalism and its criticisms (Hedra).

Translation: Ilan Lapyda

Originally published on the website Mediapart.


[1] Resumed in the book death credit (Hedra).

[2] I also asked myself at the time: “Why are there so few initiatives in defense of 'civil liberties'? There are large demonstrations in favor of 'purchasing power' or against the reduction of jobs in education, but never against surveillance cameras, and even less against the biometric passport or the Paris Metro transport card (which allows you to follow the trail of each 'prey')”. At least in this case, one can say: “The country woke up!”.

[3] "Tout le mode de teste la police", in French. This is a common slogan at demonstrations in France [NT].

[4] "Paroles de policiers: 'Les gens ne savent pas ce que c'est de se faire cracher dessus et caillasser'", Le Monde, 15 May 12


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