Last week, a report published by Amnesty International accused French police and prosecutors of “exploiting conflicting laws […] to impose a fine, arbitrarily arrest and prosecute people who have committed no violence ”. Are the French police more violent than elsewhere?
The lack of standardized indicators to measure the use of police force and its consequences makes comparison between countries difficult.
With regard to France, the data collected by NGOs and journalists indicate an undeniable brutalization of the maintenance of order, in particular with regard to the police management of crowds of demonstrators. Since December 2, 2019, since the start of the “yellow vests” movement, journalist David Dufresne has recorded four deaths, 344 head injuries, 29 hernias and five torn hands. Protesters represent the majority of victims, but journalists, high school students and passers-by are also among the victims.
Although Germany experienced some fairly serious clashes between protesters and police, during the 2017 G20 summit in Hamburg, for example, the intensity of the clashes and the physical damage caused was much lower than in France. .
Another aspect of the Amnesty International report that you mentioned concerns the judicial repression of those arrested before or during the demonstrations. Between November 2018 and July 2019, around 11,000 people were taken into police custody in this context, and more than half were released without prosecution.
The report is concerned about violations of the freedom to demonstrate resulting from the criminalization of certain practices (wearing swimming goggles or a mask, holding a banner, etc.). Breaking the protest mechanism by making it an offense also exists in Germany, but again to a lesser extent than in France.
What is the reason for this escalation of violence?
Since the beginning of the yellow vests movement, the number of demonstrations has increased sharply. But this does not explain everything. Less aggressive police strategies in Germany and the extreme rarity of the use of mutilating weapons used in France (grenades and defensive bullets) are the two main reasons for this increase in the number of people killed and injured, unprecedented since the demonstrations of the October 17, 1961 – in which hundreds of Algerians were killed by Paris police – and on February 8, 1962, when nine people were killed.
If the French police have heavy weapons, does that mean that they also receive more financial support from the state?
The comparison of budgets is difficult because the organization and the financing of the police force differ so much between France and Germany. Nevertheless, fellow sociologists note that the budget cuts made in France in all public services over the past twenty years have led to a decrease in trained and specialized police units (the Republican security companies and the Mobile gendarmes) because these are particularly expensive.
One of the effects of this scarcity of resources is the great fragmentation of the police forces mobilized in recent years: during demonstrations, we now find anti-crime squads, community police units, and sometimes even police dog squads. . These different units will intervene during demonstrations even if they are not trained in this because it is not their main activity.
In Germany, where budgetary reserves are important, it is not necessary to fill the gaps: the manpower available in the police force ensures most of the time a numerical superiority on the demonstrators.
The protests against police violence in the United States have found a powerful echo in several European countries such as the United Kingdom and France… But not in Germany. Is the perception that Germans have of their police very different from that of France?
The surveys that we have on the police perception of these two countries put Germany ahead of France, whatever the indicators. For example, in 2017, 79% of people surveyed felt they trusted the French police. At the same time, around 86% of respondents in Germany said the same.
The most important difference between France and Germany is the sense of fairness. In France, this feeling is collapsing for the police: a minority of people questioned – around 40% according to surveys – consider that the French police treat people equally, in particular because of their origin and / or their color. skin.
Among respondents belonging to minority groups, the judgments handed down on the French police are experiencing a strong erosion. In Germany, the police are seen as a relatively egalitarian institution, regardless of the social group considered.
How to explain this crisis of confidence?
For France, I would not call it a “crisis” but an “erosion” of confidence. On the other hand, there is a “crisis” in the feeling of fairness towards the police. Certain police practices constitute clear violations of the principle of equality.
In France, identity checks, as well as physical violence, mainly target young black and Arab men, with equal crime rates. On the other side of the Rhine, the differences in control rates between majority and minority groups are much smaller than in France.
Why such massive identity checks in France?
There are several reasons for this French peculiarity. First of all: the directives the police receive. Since the beginning of the 2000s, the “politics of numbers” and the fight against petty crime have become the alpha and omega of public security policies.
The consequence of this context is to place the control of drugs and illegal immigrants at the heart of the attention of police officers in the field, who believe that “if you control a lot, you will eventually detect an offense”. This is particularly the case of the anti-crime brigades which roam the cities to identify and apprehend potential criminals. Identity checks are therefore essential.
On the other hand, the German police forces make much less use of these so-called “proactive” controls and are much more oriented towards prevention, conflict resolution and service to people, tasks for which these controls are not necessary.
Training is also a decisive element. In Germany, it lasts about two and a half years, sometimes three. In France, the apprenticeship of young police officers lasts a maximum of ten months. For ADS [security assistants], there are even express training courses lasting three months.
It is a whole generation of young cops who, after only a few weeks of training, receive a weapon and are posted in the areas where relations with the police have deteriorated the most. In this context, identity checks are used as a weapon to enforce the authority of the police officer.
Finally, there is the postcolonial argument. In France, the practice of identity control became widespread in the 1960s, in the midst of the Algerian war. The police have always behaved more brutally towards the colonized and ex-colonized, in the colonies as in metropolitan France, than towards the metropolitan.
In many ways, the current breaks in the principle of equality are inherited, without being reduced to them, from relations of domination specific to the colonial era.
In France and Germany, racist remarks and acts within the police have been denounced in recent months. Is the situation in the two countries comparable?
In both countries, incidents of racism involving the police have recently arisen, often brought to the public attention by police “whistleblowers”. Racism is a difficult phenomenon to quantify. In both countries, however, the dynamics of racism are similar: racist insults towards a third party, racism between police officers, online discussion groups where racism competes with misogyny and homophobia.
The institutional response seems older and stronger in Germany: for example, the ‘intercultural openness’ programs implemented in some police forces in the 2000s in Berlin, for example, have helped to reduce the space for racism. and put the fight against discrimination on the agenda. In France, denial often dominates both police authorities and politicians.
However, a deadlock remains at the level of political and police unions in both countries, with regard to what is known as “institutional racism”, which refers to the racist bias produced by the functioning of an organization, independently. of the existence of racist intent among its officers. In the UK, however, it was the recognition of institutional racism in the police that led to far-reaching reforms in the 1990s.
Finally, there is the ideological dimension. In France, some surveys show a growing adherence of police officers to the National Rally [Marine Le Pen’s far-right party]. Around 50% of them say they voted for the far-right candidate in 2017.
In Germany, the proximity, even collusion, between certain police forces and far-right movements within the police services is of great concern. This has at least been denounced, while the denial of this type of problem still dominates in France.