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Thousands of French police officers protest against more protection


PARIS – Thousands of police officers said their work had become increasingly dangerous due to the government’s failure to address France’s underlying social problems and protested the government on Wednesday in Paris.

Police union leaders called for stricter laws on violence against officials and stricter penalties against convicted criminals as thousands gathered outside the National Assembly in the rain, warning political leaders who were present but not invited to speak.

“Your presence is an important sign,” said Fabien Vanhemelryck, general secretary of Alliance Police, a right-wing union whose members appeared to dominate the protest, from a stage next to a giant screen. “It must not be a sign of future elections, but a wake-up call, a sense of responsibility, a change and a return to safety.”

The protest, organized by 14 police unions, came after the recent murders of one officer and one police officer, despite increased pressure to reform an armed force that is often criticized for its brutal tactics and racist behavior.

With crime dominating the political debate a year before the presidential election, the protest attracted leaders from almost every political party in France. Criticism of official politics put President Emmanuel Macron’s administration in an uncomfortable position and threatened to overshadow a rare nugget of good news on Wednesday as restaurants and cafes partially reopened nationwide after months of pandemic restrictions.

Gérald Darmanin – the powerful interior minister and head of the national police – was taking part in the demonstration when officials called him: “We need your help.”

On a rare occasion where a minister joined a demonstration criticizing his own government, Mr Darmanin said he was merely expressing solidarity while political rivals said he was effectively protesting himself. Mr Darmanin has the government’s efforts led to fend off a challenge from Marine Le Pen, far-right leader and main opponent of Mr Macron.

The crime issue has had a direct impact on the fate of French politicians and parties for the past two decades and is expected to do so again in the coming months as France seeks to break free from the devastation caused by the pandemic. On Wednesday, some political figures on the left joined the protest and spoke harshly about crime, despite government statistics not showing the type of crime that politicians have invoked.

Fabien Roussel, the leader of the French Communist Party, recently launched his presidential campaign focusing on crime.

In an interview, Mr Roussel said that “there is some sort of normalization of violence today” and that he “wants to make sure we can keep everyone safe” by adopting words and a tone normally heard by right-wing politicians.

“It is no longer possible to neglect this problem,” he said.

France is one of the few Western democracies with a centralized police force, and its 150,000-strong national force is one of the most powerful constituencies in the country. Since it falls under the direct authority of the Home Office, the protest was “a show of defiance to the government,” said Fabien Jobard, a political scientist specializing in police.

The protesters first paid homage to Eric Masson, an officer killed during an antidrug operation in the southern city of Avignon, and Stéphanie Monfermé, a police officer who was killed in a terrorist attack on a police station in the city of Rambouillet, near Paris.

The number of police officers injured on duty has almost doubled in the last 15 years and, according to the Interior Ministry, rose from 3,842 in 2004 to 6,760 in 2019, in a year that, according to the Interior Ministry, was marked by violent protests against the yellow vest was coined.

Mr Macron recently stepped up efforts to respond to police concerns. He promised to recruit 10,000 additional police officers by the end of his current five-year term and set out with officers in a drug trafficking area in the city of Montpellier.

While police officers have called for stricter laws, they have also attributed the crime to successive governments failing to address France’s social problems, from poor integration of immigrant children to problems in the country’s schools.

Linda Kebbab, a representative of the Unity SGP Labor Police Force, the largest police union, said police have often faced “the collective failure of the state over the past 40 years” in implementing adequate social and educational policies, particularly in impoverished areas with high crime rates. Instead, the officials were the government’s last resort to ensure security in these areas at their own risk.

“We are being sacrificed,” she said in an interview.

At the protest, which was attended by citizens expressing their support for the police, Daniel Chomette, a 34-year Alliance Police representative and police officer, said that officials often “felt they were working for nothing”.

“The police are being asked to solve all society’s problems, even if they put obstacles in our way,” Chomette said as protesters behind him held signs saying “Paid to serve, not to die”.

The police have pushed back proposals to reform their methods, such as banning chokeholds, and opening up to scrutiny for racism. Police unions recently broke off months of talks with the government about possible reforms.

Controversy over deadly and brutal police operations sparked widespread protests against the police last year. A controversial security law empowering the police drew thousands of protesters onto the streets as video footage exposed the brutal beatings by officials of a black music producer, Michel Zecler, in his own Paris studio.

While police union leaders stressed in Wednesday’s protest that their duty was to protect French citizens, the national force is often seen as protecting the interests of the state. A recent poll found that 27 percent of respondents said they viewed the police with “fear” or “hostility”.

“The police play a very strong role in protecting the political regime in France,” said police expert Jobard, adding that they often “feel that politicians are using them as a firewall, as a protective shield”.

Despite the deepening debate about insecurity, crime in France rose from the 1970s to the mid-1980s before declining and stabilizing. Government data shows that almost all serious crimes are lower today than they were a decade or three years ago.

France’s per capita homicide rate – 1.16 per 100,000 people in 2018 – was about the same as most parts of the UK, according to the European Commission, while the German rate was 0.76. France’s rate was far lower than the United States, which was five per 100,000 people in 2018, according to FBI data.

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