Police violence in France

Dora Longo Bahia. Democracy (project for Avenida Paulista II), 2020 Acrylic, water-based pen and watercolor on paper 29.7 x 21 cm


Police intervention under Macron resulted in three deaths, five hands cut off, 28 lost sight in one eye and 341 seriously injured in the head.


Faced with numerous protests denouncing the violence of the “forces of order” against unarmed demonstrators, Emmanuel Macron responded with a historic sentence: “Don't talk about repression and police violence. These words are unacceptable in a rule of law” (March 2, 2019).

Magnificent formula, almost ideal-typical example (to speak like Max Weber), of what we could call a fake political science. In fact, the sentence is highly ridiculous: there is no rule of law in the world that has not resorted to illegal and illegitimate forms of police violence at some point in its history! For example: the French Republic. We are not going to narrate here all violence of this type since France became a State of law again, in 1944. A single example is enough: October 17, 1961. France was perfectly a State of law, the Constitution was in force, Parliament met. A peaceful demonstration by Algerians was drowned in blood by the police: hundreds of dead, many of them thrown into the Seine. The person responsible for this massacre was the Chief of Police of Paris, Mr. Maurice Papon (tried and convicted, much later, on other grounds: crime against humanity, collaboration with the Nazi occupiers in the genocide against the Jews).

Certainly, police violence in the macronie [President Emmanuel Macron's government] in the last two years, from the Yellow Vests movement, is not equivalent. It is not just about the most brutal aggressions by the forces of order against unarmed demonstrators since the end of the colonial war in Algeria. This violence has been exercised with method – strangulation, compression of the body against the ground, etc. – and a panoply of repression prohibited in most European countries: LBD – “Defense bullet launcher” (a nice euphemism!) –, “dispersion grenades”, toxic tear gas grenades, Taser, etc. – and a range of repressive methods banned in most European countries. But the good old baton has also been used to seriously injure a very large number of people.

Let us recall the case of Geneviève Legay, a 73-year-old anti-globalization activist, who was attacked with a truncheon and thrown to the ground during a violent and totally disproportionate police assault in front of a few hundred peaceful demonstrators. “The environment was very peaceful” and the group was “composed mainly of women and elderly people, without riots, without projectiles”, testified the photographers (Le Monde, June 25, 2019).

In the images from the surveillance systems, we see an officer leave the cordon at the beginning of the attack and deliberately push the 70-year-old yellow vest, dressed in a black T-shirt and carrying a huge rainbow flag with the word “peace”.

Taken to the hospital with broken ribs and numerous skull fractures, she still suffers from the aftermath of that attack. A few months later, the person responsible for this attack, Commissioner Souchi, received the bronze medal for internal security from the hands of Christophe Castaner, Minister of the Interior, as a reward for “particularly honorable services and exceptional engagement”. Emmanuel Macron, for his part, declared a few days after the Nice demonstration: “This lady has not been in contact with the forces of order”. Before specifying that, “when you are fragile (…) you don't go to places that are defined as prohibited and you don't put yourself in situations like this”. Therefore, it is the victims who are to blame. Eighteen months later, however, the IGPN [General Inspectorate of the National Police], known for its leniency towards offending police officers, was forced to acknowledge the police's responsibility for this aggression.

Under the current government, according to the balance of journalist David Dufresne, police intervention resulted in three deaths, five hands torn off, 28 lost the sight of one eye and 341 seriously injured in the head. After sixty years – since 1962 –, after several governments of the right, center or left, nothing similar has been seen. Before Macron, state violence took place mainly in the suburbs, against people of colonial origin. The case of Adama Traoré, who died in 2016 in a police station in the Val-d'Oise, is a paradigm of this violence with racist connotations. Now, with the current government, we are witnessing a kind of “democratization” of violence: no discrimination based on color, origin, nationality, age or sex! Everyone has the right to the truncheon, in perfect equality.

Is it self-defence by law enforcement against violent demonstrators armed with cobblestones and Molotov cocktails? It is far from being the rule. Take the case of three dead: Zineb Redouane, 80, was hit in the face by shrapnel from tear gas shells when she tried to close the window of her apartment on the fourth floor; Steve Maia Caniço, drowned in the Loire River after a police attack on a group that sang loudly at night; and Cedric Chouviat, a delivery man who was trying to film the police with his cell phone, victim of a forcible intervention (fractured larynx). None of them participated in a “prohibited demonstration”.

Who is responsible for this unprecedented violence in the history of post-colonial France? The cops, no doubt. The racist, violent and repressive tendencies of several police officers are well documented by numerous testimonies, including those from other police officers who were outraged by this situation. But why didn't abuses reach such a scale before 2018? The police were the same… Here is the only possible explanation: these practices were encouraged, authorized, legitimized and “covered up” by the authorities. Among others: Didier Lallement, Chief of Police of Paris, Christophe Castaner, Minister of the Interior, Laurent Nunez, Secretary of State to the Minister of the Interior. A statement from the latter sums up the attitude of the authorities well: “We do not regret the way in which we conducted public order” (June 2, 2019, in RTL). As for Minister Castaner, here is his opinion on the matter: “I like order in this country and I defend the police and gendarmerie. And in my observations there is no 'but'. I stand up for them and that's all." (February 11, 2020, before the National Assembly).

But, ultimately, the person responsible is Jupiter himself, that is, Emmanuel Macron: in the Fifth Republic, it is the president who defines the strategy and behavior of the forces of order. We are in a rule of law: the police only obey the orders of the legal and constitutional authorities. Jérôme Rodrigues, one of the Yellow Vests animators, who lost sight in one eye by an LBD projectile, noted this, saying in an interview published on September 7, 2020 on the portal The Modern World: "We talk about police violence, but basically we should talk about government violence, they are the ones who simply use the police as a shield".


In the Yellow Vest demonstrations, however, the government's position was not easy to defend. Video recordings made by demonstrators or bystanders no longer made it possible to hide the violence. The very idea that it could be compatible with the “rule of law” was contested nationally and internationally. Since January 2019, Jacques Toubon, the defender of rights, has demanded a suspension of the use of the Defense Bullet Launcher, because of the “dangerousness”, he said, of these weapons used by the forces of order. In early March, it was Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who asked the French authorities to investigate the police violence committed on the sidelines of the yellow vest demonstrations since November 2018. She added that the yellow vests were demonstrating against “what they consider to be their exclusion from economic rights and participation in public affairs”. The argument that there was no police violence, but police operations to contain the violence perpetrated by the demonstrators, had already been abandoned.

Police violence was then not only recognized, but claimed. Benjamin Griveaux, government spokesman at the time, called for “firmness” when the door to his ministry was broken down by the yellow vests, without resulting in any casualties. And Gérald Darmanin, then Minister of Public Accounts, slammed the gavel: “In a republican state, the police and citizens have a monopoly on legitimate violence. gendarmes".

The formula was launched, a vague memory, no doubt, of the studies that the minister had followed at the IEP [Institute of Political Studies] in Lille. The reference to Max Weber was not yet present. Perhaps it was suggested to him by the more nuanced editorial by Thomas Legrand in the morning edition of France Inter some days before. Commenting on the brutal arrest, to say the least, of Éric Drouet, whom he criticized for not respecting the rules in force during the demonstrations and “accepted by all”, the journalist acknowledged that the maintenance of order in France was perhaps not “up to the task”. height” of a great democracy. And he concluded like this: “But to maintain the rule of law and the liberal democracy that it intends to be, it is necessary to also consider the results of the use of what Max Weber called legitimate violence”.

From then on, politicians and journalists would not fail to summon Max Weber, transforming him into an apostle of legitimate, and therefore inevitable, State violence. In June 2020, the same Thomas Legrand relapsed: “The government cannot in fact accept the idea that the police would be intrinsically violent, beyond, of course, the famous legitimate violence of which the state would be the depositary, according to Max Weber. This would validate the theory that the police are just the armed arm of a system of domination”. Having become Minister of the Interior, Gérald Darmanin, evoking “the action of the forces of order”, before the law commission of the National Assembly, no doubt wants to demonstrate his culture: “The police exercise violence, certainly legitimate, but violence, and that is as old as Max Weber”. At a time when protests are multiplying around the world against the murder of George Floyd, asphyxiated to death by the police, and, moreover, against police violence, Gérald Darmanin undoubtedly believes he is being humorous when he adds that “When I hear the expression 'police violence', I personally feel suffocated. Of course, the police exercise violence, but it is legitimate violence”.

The formula was released. It would be repeated from left to extreme right. Thus, Hadrien Desuin, at the portal Conversationalist, wrote in January 2019: “Faced with the excesses of certain yellow vests and the growing violence of rioters, the forces of order exercise a monopoly on legitimate physical violence, protecting civilians and companies.” He will specify in another article that the forces of order are doing their job: “the exercise of the 'monopoly of legitimate violence', to use the expression coined by Max Weber”. In a completely different spirit, on the left, David Dufresne himself – both in the film “A country that stands wise” [2020] as in the novel “Derniere sommation"[Grasset, 2019], which denounces the repression of the Yellow Vests – assigns a not insignificant place to the discussion of Weber's formula. But the critical force of Weber's thought is never restored.


What exactly does Weber say and what is the significance of his argument? In economy and society, this large collection published posthumously by his wife Marianne Weber in 1921, the sociologist proposes his famous definition of the State: “We can define a political institution as a “State”, he writes, when “it successfully claims … monopoly of coercion (force) physical legitimate”. He adds later that the State uses many other means to make itself obeyed, but “the threat and eventually the application of violence” is everywhere, “in case of failure of the other means, the last ratio”. In his conference on the Politics as a vocation (1919), Weber proposes a slightly different definition: “the State is that human community which, within a given territory (…) claims for itself and manages to impose the monopoly on legitimate physical violence". But the basic idea, of course, is the same.

This definition of Weber's State has, with good reason, been widely regarded as pertinent by various currents in the social sciences. It is not so far removed from Marxist theses… Moreover, Weber himself, in Politics as a Vocation, quotes in support of his argument – ​​not without a touch of irony – none other than… Leon Trotsky: “'Every state is founded on violence,' said Trotsky in Brest-Litovsk”.

However, it should be noted that this definition is perfectly Wert-frei, free of value judgments. The "legitimacy" in question here has no meaning in itself. It is not a moral principle, a Kantian categorical imperative, nor is it a universal legal rule. As the eminent Weber expert Catherine Colliot-Thelène reminds us in an article published in Le Monde on February 19, 2020, “the term 'legitimate', in this definition, does not have a normative sense: it is not the equivalent of 'fair' or 'rationally founded'. The state monopolization of legitimate violence, (...) is a factual observation: a certain type of power, territorial, managed to impose its hegemony on other types of power that competed with it in previous centuries”.

In fact, in Weber, the concept of “legitimacy” refers only to the belief in the legitimacy of power, its acceptance as legitimate by the subjects of domination. As we know, Weber distinguishes three types of legitimation of domination (and therefore of the monopoly of state violence):

– rational (or legal, or rational-bureaucratic): the belief in the legality of existing regulations;

– traditional: belief in the sanctity of traditions and the authorities that claim them;

– charismatic: belief in a person's sacred, heroic, or exceptional character.

The legitimacy of which Weber speaks has no necessary connection with the rule of law. It's just a belief, the acceptance of a discourse of legitimacy, in all possible forms of State, including absolutism – traditional legitimacy – or a personalist dictatorship – charismatic legitimacy.

To take an extreme example, which has nothing to do with the rule of law: the Third Reich is undoubtedly a state in the Weberian sense: throughout its duration, it "successfully claimed the legitimate monopoly of physical coercion". After the defeat of Nazism, military and administrators (responsible for concentration camps, etc.) tried to “legitimize” their crimes with two arguments:

– obedience to superior authorities (rational-bureaucratic legitimacy);

– the oath of loyalty to the Führer (charismatic legitimacy).

These arguments were rejected by the Nuremberg Tribunal, and the culprits were punished with imprisonment or hanging…

In a rule of law, it is the belief in laws that can legitimize the monopoly of coercion. But we are perfectly entitled to refuse to believe in the “legitimacy” of violent practices carried out by a State, either because they are contrary to the law – which is often the case – or because certain laws are contested. Before the death penalty was abolished, Robert Badinter and many others challenged the "legitimacy" of this law. It could also happen that the majority of the population judges that the way in which the State exercises its monopoly on physical violence is no longer “legitimate”… This was the case in France during the reign of Emmanuel Macron.

In situations of crisis of domination, two powers can dispute the monopoly of physical coercion: this is what we call situations of “duality of power” (as, for example, in France in 1944). But what we see more frequently – and this has been the case in France since the Liberation until today – are social movements that, eventually attacking goods or buildings, target objects that are symbols of capitalist violence, state violence, or even violence colonial. They are not militias serving other political groups. They do not jeopardize the state's monopoly on physical violence (on people), which we have seen tends to be exercised without scruples. Who would dare to compare the breaking of a shop window with the police murder, by suffocation, of a delivery man? Or with the mutilation, by the “forces of order”, of dozens of unarmed demonstrators?


Weber's invocation to legitimize state violence is both magic and sophistry. Sophistry, because if state violence, all state violence, is legitimate, the very notion of violence loses its meaning. Walk, there is nothing to see. And this occurs, moreover, by the magic of invoking an indisputable intellectual authority, which demonstrates, above all, that politicians and journalists who appropriated this formula did not read Weber.

According to Weber, the State, which is only a grouping of domination (Herschaftsverband) among others, has no legitimacy in itself. The physical coercion that it exerts in a monopoly manner, while the churches, Weber specifies, have a monopoly on psychological coercion, is legitimate only to the extent that it is recognized and accepted. Weber's insistence on the notion of monopoly allows us to understand that the State is in the interval between the exclusive use of violence without legitimation (or with a parody of legitimation) by a group that exercises, thus, a domination that aims to become total, and the loss or absence of the monopoly on violence that is the hallmark of those States that today say they have failed.

The State can only exist on the condition that those it dominates adhere to and submit to the authority claimed by the rulers. Max Weber thus raises an essential question for philosophy, as well as for political anthropology, which is to know how and to what extent we can accept suffering this violence that is the specific means of the State. There is, therefore, a subtly critical reading of the State. After citing and agreeing with Trotsky's formula, he, in fact, adds: "If there were only social structures from which all violence was absent, then the concept of the State would have disappeared, and only what we call, in the literal sense of the word, , of 'anarchy' would remain”. In the literal sense, and without any pejorative connotation, anarchy is the absence of domination. Because of his friendship with his former student Robert Michels, but also because of his love relationship with Else von Richtofen, also a sociologist, a brilliant and free woman, Weber was able to become familiar with libertarian theses.

A passage from the essays on the theory of science is a striking example of the respect he had for this current of thought: “An anarchist,” he wrote, “who generally denies the validity of law as such . . . of the right. And if he is, the Archimedean point, so to speak, where he finds himself by virtue of his objective conviction – provided it is authentic – is situated out away from the conventions and assumptions that seem so self-evident to the rest of us, it may give you an opportunity to discover in the fundamental intuitions of current legal theory a problem that escapes all those for whom they are too obvious (…). In fact, for us, the most radical doubt is the father (sic) of knowledge”. Weber, Max (1965) [1917], “Essai sur le sens de la 'neutralité axiologique' dans les sciences sociologiques et economiques”. Essai sur la théorie de la Science. Yield, Paris, trans. Julien Freund, p. 482.

By dressing him up as an apostle of the State and its violence, in an attempt to justify the unjustifiable, politicians and journalists made him one more victim of that same violence.

*Sonia Dayan-Herzbrun is a professor at the Université Paris-Diderot. Author, among other books, of Le journalisme au cinema (Threshold).

*Michael Lowy he is director of research at the Center National de la Recherche Scientifique (France). Author, among other books, of Marxism against positivism (Cortez).

*Eleni Varikas is a professor at Université Paris-VIII. Author, among other books, ofThinking about sex and gender (Unicamp).

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves

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