French President Emmanuel Macron has declined to condemn the country’s top police chiefs for appearing to suggest officers were above the law, seeking to stave off unrest among security forces wearied by repeated bouts of street violence. Critics, however, lament a missed opportunity to reassert the state’s authority over an increasingly restless police force.
Just weeks after the police killing of 17-year-old Nahel M. kicked off massive riots across France, the country’s top police official sparked a fresh row on Sunday by slamming the decision to jail an officer whose actions during the unrest are being investigated.
The controversial remarks by national police chief Frédéric Veaux were aimed at staving off a revolt in the southern city of Marseille, where officers have staged a rare walkout in protest at a court decision to remand one of their colleagues in custody.
The jailed policeman is one of four officers placed under investigation over the alleged beating of a 21-year-old man of North African origin, who has undergone multiple surgical procedures and had part of his skull removed after what he said was a deliberate attack by police using an LBD blast-ball gun.
“Knowing that (the officer) is in prison stops me from sleeping,” Veaux said in an interview with French daily Le Parisien, after travelling to Marseille to bring a message of support to police from Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin.
“In general, I believe that ahead of a possible trial, a police officer should not be in prison, even if he may have committed serious faults or errors in the course of his work,” Veaux added in remarks backed by Paris police chief Laurent Nunez, France’s second-highest-ranking officer.
The comments promptly raised eyebrows among members of the judiciary, who denounced an attack on their independence and the principle of equality before the law.
Cécile Mamelin, the vice president of the Union of Magistrates, described Veaux’s words as “scandalous” and “extremely serious in a state of law”, while Marseille’s top judge Olivier Leurent issued a statement urging “restraint so that the judiciary can pursue the investigation (…) free from pressure and in complete impartiality”.
Macron on the police in France
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Meanwhile, the left-wing opposition blasted the government for failing to rein in “a police hierarchy that places itself above the law”.
Macron’s balancing act
France’s latest policing dispute caught up with Macron as he touched down in the French Pacific territory of New Caledonia on Monday, some 16,000 kilometres away, for the start of an Indo-Pacific tour.
The French president steered clear of commenting both on Veaux’s remarks and the judicial decision to remand the officer in custody. Pressed for a response, he stressed that “no one in the Republic is above the law” and that the police “obviously (…) fall under the law”.
Above all, Macron praised police in the face of “an unprecedented surge of violence” during the riots, in which some 900 law enforcement officers were injured. He said he understood “the emotions of our officers”, adding that they “must be heard while respecting the rule of law”.
His choice of words reflected the government’s concern at the mounting anguish voiced by police after a gruelling year marked by rioting and sometimes violent protests, said Jean-Marc Berlière, a historian of the French police.
“There is widespread discontent and a sense of injustice among police officers who feel that they are sacrificing their lives and well-being to maintain public order – while being finger-pointed and reprimanded in return,” Berlière said.
He cited the increasingly vocal criticism of police’s heavy-handed tactics, both at home and from abroad, which has seen rights groups, the Council of Europe and the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Association each voice their concern at French police’s “excessive use of force” in tackling protests against Macron’s deeply unpopular pension reform, which the government rammed through parliament in March without a vote.
While police cannot go on strike, Berlière added, “the government is also well aware of the risk of further roiling a police force that is still perfectly capable of paralysing law enforcement.”
Over the past week, several hundred police officers in Marseille have gone on sick leave in protest over their colleague’s detention, according to unnamed union sources. Others have put themselves under so-called “code 562”, which means that they only respond to emergency and essential missions.
While the exact numbers are not known, they are sufficiently high to alarm the authorities in Paris, said Berlière.
“In recent months, the government has already seen its legitimacy challenged by street protesters and parts of the opposition,” he said. “It cannot afford a challenge from the police, too.”
Seeking to stave off further unrest in the ranks, France’s interior minister on Thursday said he understood the frustration and anger voiced by overworked security forces after repeated bouts of street violence.
“I want to say that I can understand this fatigue, sadness and emotion,” Darmanin said before heading into a meeting with police union representatives. He also urged police not to let down the population and serve the public interest.
A crisis of authority
Critics of Macron’s cautious response have argued that it trivialises what amounts to a serious challenge to the rule of law.
In an editorial on Wednesday, French daily Le Monde described the president’s stance as an “admission of weakness” in the face of a police force that “is becoming increasingly difficult to control”.
A noted police expert, Sebastian Roché, tweeted his concern about what is at stake, warning that the police chiefs’ comments undermined the “cardinal principle” of equality before the law.
In an interview with investigative weekly Mediapart, Roché said Macron’s words left the impression that “he doesn’t really know, or at best doesn’t appreciate, the extent of this unprecedented transgression under the Fifth Republic”.
The president’s refusal to comment on Veaux’s remarks “reflects his political weakness and fragility”, he added. “It’s as if he were saying ‘I’m not in charge’.”
Speaking to FRANCE 24 at the height of the pension unrest earlier this year, Roché described the police crackdown on protests as a consequence of both a French policing tradition and the government’s fragility.
Heavy-handed policing stems from the “crisis of authority” undermining Macron’s minority and deeply unpopular government, Roché explained. “When a government chooses force it is always because its authority is weakened,” he added.
Echoing such views, political analyst Emmanuel Blanchard argued in an interview with left-leaning daily Libération that the government’s reliance on law enforcement to quell social unrest “has weakened its position in relation to the police”.
“It’s a cyclical trend: the less popular legitimacy the government enjoys, the more it relies on the forces of law and order, which it needs to suppress social movements,” Blanchard explained. “So it gives them (the police) guarantees. This leads to forms of empowerment, which can lead to protests like the one we are currently seeing.”
A history of unrest
France has a long history of police protests and unrest – one governments are well aware of.
“Contrary to what is commonly assumed, the police are not always a passive and obedient instrument in the hands of the executive power,” Berlière noted. “One doesn’t have to be a historian to have some idea of the perils for a government of alienating law enforcement.”
In 1958, widespread police unrest helped precipitate the fall of the troubled Fourth Republic, a parliamentarian regime that was replaced by the current presidential system instituted by World War II hero Charles de Gaulle.
Decades later, in March 1983, some 2,000 officers marched on the justice ministry in Paris calling for the removal of Robert Badinter, the justice minister who helped abolish the death penalty and whom they deemed soft on crime. That move backfired, however, as then-president François Mitterrand swiftly moved to dismiss France’s top police chiefs and punish union leaders.
“If certain police officers, an active minority, have failed in their duty, the duty of those in charge of the Republic is to strike and ensure that the authority of the state is respected,” Mitterrand said in televised remarks that have resurfaced on social media in recent days, posted by critics of Macron’s more cautious approach.
Such comparisons have little pertinence, Berlière argued, pointing to widely differing contexts.
“Back in 1983 there were no riots and no street protests to be wary of,” he said. “And while the revolt against Badinter was led by a fringe, far-right union, Macron and his government are aware that hardline unions are more powerful today and that the officers’ protest in Marseille is broadly supported.”
One thing that hasn’t changed is the longstanding animosity between the police and the judiciary, which has underpinned this and other disputes.
In May 2021, police unions vented their anger at the justice system during a rally outside the National Assembly in Paris, attended by politicians of all stripes. Union leaders could be heard stating that “the police’s problem is the judiciary” and calling for “constitutional constraints” to be “breached”.
Police unions routinely accuse the judges of being too lenient with criminals and too harsh with officers. Magistrates’ unions, meanwhile, accuse police authorities of “hijacking” the judiciary to repress protest movements, notably through the use of arbitrary or “preventive” arrests that seldom lead to prosecution.
The comments by Veaux and Nunez, France’s most senior police officials, take the dispute to a new level, reflecting the police hierarchy’s concern to appear in step with an increasingly disgruntled – and radicalised – base.
“Many in the police perceive the decision to jail their colleague in Marseille as a case of judges abusing their powers and seeking to settle scores,” said Berlière, noting that officers are seldom remanded in custody pending a trial.
“As for magistrates, they see the police action as a form of interference with the judiciary and of disregard for the separation of powers,” he added.
In its editorial on Wednesday, Le Monde said Veaux’s remarks threatened to open “a new chapter in the war between police and the judiciary”, while also “calling into question the principles of the rule of law, namely the independence of the judiciary, the separation of powers and equality before the law”.
In such a context, the newspaper expressed concern at the government’s “worrying silence”.
Éric Dupond-Moretti, the justice minister, waited until Macron’s comments before tweeting that the independence of judicial officials is “an indispensable condition for respect of the rule of law”.
His colleague at the interior ministry, who is Veaux’s direct boss, waited a full week before breaking his silence on the matter. In his comments on Thursday, Darmanin expressed support for the police chief, whose remarks in Le Parisien had been approved by the minister’s cabinet.
“Police officers cannot be the only people in France for whom presumption of innocence (…) is replaced by a presumption of guilt,” the minister told reporters outside a police station in Paris, in remarks that a representative body of French magistrates promptly described as an “alarming” attack on the judiciary’s “impartiality”.
Darmanin later told police unions he would examine their demands for greater protection for officers, including those facing legal investigations. He also pledged to visit Marseille in the coming days to express support for police in the southern city plagued by gang violence.
Overall, Macron and his ministers appear more concerned to “calm things down” than to reassert the state’s authority over the police, Le Monde wrote, pointing to a delicate balancing act as France prepares to host a series of major sporting events.
With the country set to host the Rugby World Cup from September and the Olympic Games next year, Macron “certainly cannot afford the luxury of an open crisis with those who maintain public order”, the paper noted.
But the president’s decision to shirk a fight will do little to appease the wider nation and address the root causes of urban riots in France, Le Monde cautioned, noting that the worst cases of rioting this century have been triggered by police blunders and that the country “is suffering from a very poor relationship between the police and a section of the population”.