France: the rise of the robocop, by Laurent Bonelli (Le Monde diplomatique

Braced: French riot police arrest a demonstrator on the 11th day of action against Emmanuel Macron’s pensions reform, Bordeaux, southwestern France, 6 April 2023

Jérôme Gilles · NurPhoto · Getty

In the French parliament on 4 May 1891 deputy Ernest Roche denounced the violence recently inflicted on protesters in Fourmies, a small town in the north of the country. Early on 1 May workers demanding an eight-hour working day and a holiday on May Day (1) had assembled outside a factory. At around 9am, Roche said, ‘the gendarmes, on the orders of the lieutenant and without provocation, charged. One man was injured; a child had half his ear cut off. The crowd grew angry at that point and started throwing stones.’ After a period of calm, ‘the jostling resumed at around 3pm and the number of demonstrators grew.’

Then violence erupted: ‘The gendarmes struck out on all sides. Women, children and old people were knocked to the ground. Frustration mounted. A large number of citizens retaliated by throwing stones.’ Suddenly, ‘great disorder reigned, and it was then that, without anyone knowing who had given the order, and without prior warning, a platoon opened fire on this mass of people … The square was covered with the dead and wounded.’ The violence left nine dead, including two children; 35 had bullet wounds.

Under questioning, interior minister Jean Antoine Ernest Constans remained adamant: ‘We gave orders to ensure public peace; we gave them clearly, firmly and prudently.’ By his account, ‘the local gendarmerie was able to make out in the crowd the usual crew of smugglers and other shady characters, estimated at five or six hundred people, more than a quarter of them foreigners. All day the police and army had to endure insults, taunts and increasingly violent behaviour, and it was only as a last resort and sensing a danger that they could no longer avert by other means, that they had to resort to armed force.’ He concluded, ‘I do not know whether the agents, weary of the crowd’s provocations, let themselves be drawn into violence; but what I do know is that men of whom we have not yet spoken were injured and put in mortal danger in the execution of their duty … I wish to send my thanks to all these brave people.’ These final words angered Roche; after twice calling the minister a murderer, he was temporarily excluded from the chamber.

With its claims that the state is acting with ‘moderation, firmness and prudence’, controversy over whether demonstrators or police bear responsibility for escalating violence, debates about the role of ‘troublemakers’ (especially foreigners), and unconditional support for the forces of law and order, this 19th-century argument foreshadows the controversies around the repression of the nationwide movement protesting against France’s current pension reform, and also the huge new reservoirs for agricultural irrigation (‘mega-basins’) in places such as Sainte-Soline, in recent weeks.

Controlling ‘popular emotions’

The similarity is surprising, because policing has changed greatly since the late 19th century. It’s no longer the responsibility of the army, which was then in charge of controlling what were called ‘popular emotions’. As soon as the local police or the gendarmerie were in trouble, the army was called in, as the 145th infantry regiment was in Fourmies. From the Three Glorious Days of 1830 to the Bloody Week of 1871, via the June Days uprising in 1848, the crushing of social or regime crises caused thousands of deaths and tens of thousands of injuries.

But this brutal repression was barely considered a political or even a moral problem. For the elite, the common people were different by nature, a mass that lacked individual will, ready to blindly follow a few rabble-rousers into the fray. Turgot, Louis XVI’s controller-general of finances, summarised this social imaginary in a letter to the members of the Estates General of Burgundy in April 1775. After peasants, angered by the price of grain, looted and destroyed a mill, he wrote, ‘Above all, it is necessary to impose on the rabble and to be the stronger,’ and then ‘to arrest the leaders of the disturbance, who can easily be identified and found,’ impunity being considered ‘a great encouragement for future riots.’

Maintaining order is not just a two-way confrontation between police and protesters. It’s a triangular relationship that also involves those in power

By the late 19th century, this attitude was no longer defensible. Under the ancien régime, the nobility had had a monopoly on political domination; under the Bourbon Restoration and the July Monarchy (1815-48), it was reserved for the wealthy; but the introduction of universal male suffrage in 1848 admitted ordinary people into politics. More traditional and personal forms of authority lost value with the arrival of clubs, electoral committees, leagues (such as the education league), mutual aid societies and then political parties. These bodies organised citizens and were the crucible of discourse, manifestos and ideologies that placed particular emphasis on social questions and workers’ conditions.

Political mobilisation played a role in bringing the Third Republic into being and consolidating the republicans from 1877 onwards. Though it was a long process, it became hard for the new regime to guarantee freedom of expression (under the press laws of 1881, for example), freedom of assembly and freedom to form unions, while at the same time ordering troops to shoot on those who exercised those rights. Especially since the army was not always dependable. During the 1907 revolt of the Languedoc winegrowers (which left seven dead in Narbonne), the 17th infantry regiment mutinied and fraternised with demonstrators, putting Georges Clemenceau’s government in a difficult position.

In consequence, the early 20th century saw several bills that sought to create a force separate from the army to manage protests. After much hesitation, it finally came into being in July 1921, with the establishment of 111 ‘Mobile Gendarmerie platoons’. Renamed the Garde Républicaine Mobile in 1926 and now generally known as the Mobile Gendarmerie (GM), this force had grown to 21,000 men by 1939 and had a virtual monopoly on maintaining order on French soil, except in Paris.

‘Temporarily suggestible individuals’

The GM developed its own doctrine, training and expertise. The emphasis was no longer on treating protesters as enemies or opponents, but as ‘temporarily suggestible individuals’, in the terminology of the 1930s, or ‘temporarily misguided citizens’, in that of the 1970s. This meant avoiding direct contact with protestors, which experience showed always degenerated into confrontation. Instead, techniques for channelling, containing and dispersing crowds were used, which always included leaving them an exit route. Collective discipline, human barricades, the rifle butt and truncheon were initially the only tools it had.

After the second world war, these were supplemented by equipment to keep demonstrators at a distance, such as offensive grenades, fire hoses and tear gas – previously unthinkable in France because of memories of the trenches. In 1944 the French national police in turn created special units, the Republican Security Corps (Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité, CRS), which numbered nearly 13,000 men by 1947 and copied the GM’s structure, ethos and equipment.

Both forces were involved in the brutal social conflicts of the time (such as the miners’ strikes of 1947-48), and there were many injuries on both sides. But there was a marked decrease in fatalities among protesters, especially in the provinces. Paris remained an exception: its prefect had his own units drawn from the municipal police (2). They had neither the training nor the experience of their colleagues elsewhere and readily resorted to violence to ‘settle scores’ with the communists (ten killed at the Charonne metro station on 8 February 1962) and Algerians (seven killed in a demonstration on 14 July 1953 and several dozen on 17 October 1961).

The scale and intensity of the crisis of May-June 1968 put the forces of law and order to a severe test. Contrary to official claims that there were no victims, five people died (three students, in Paris, Flins and the Calvados, and two workers in Sochaux); but above all, law enforcement appeared outnumbered and ill-equipped. As a result, between 1968 and 1974, 20,000 police officers were recruited and both the CRS and the GM received new body armour (helmets, visors, leg guards, shields, gas masks) and offensive and defensive equipment, such as fire engines, armoured wheeled vehicles (known as VBRGs) and a wider range of grenades.

In April 1969 a training centre, the CPGM, was opened in Saint-Astier in the Dordogne to provide ongoing instruction. In 1977 a purpose-built town – Cigaville – was created there, with buildings, streets and squares, enabling training in all law enforcement situations, including the most difficult (dealing with barricades and Molotov cocktails). The CRS used this too before setting up its own centres. The aim of this training was to instil collective discipline and self-control in officers so that they could manage the fear and stress inherent in their role.

Advent of the robocop

A major equipment update took place after the fishermen’s protest in Rennes in February 1994, considered by the profession to be one of the most violent of recent times (distress flares and harpoons were used, police officers and gendarmes sustained battlefield-type injuries, the Parliament of Brittany was set on fire). Thereafter, grilles were fitted to vehicles and, most significantly, ‘robocop-style’ uniforms, as their wearers called them, were issued: these were flame-retardant and included armguards and elbow and shoulder pads, Kevlar helmets and neck protectors.

Despite the authorities’ claim that they ‘contained violence’, many were injured. But fatalities have been rare since 1968, to the point where the names of those killed live on in people’s minds: Malik Oussekine, killed by police during the student protests against the Devaquet law (proposing university reforms) in December 1986, and Rémi Fraisse, who died after being struck by a grenade in Sivens at a protest against a dam project in October 2014 (3). Police representatives even came to praise what they called the French model of policing. They looked askance at foreign police forces’ problems tackling the anti-globalisation movement (Seattle in 1999, Gothenburg and Genoa in 2001) and remained aloof from discussion at European level.

However, something gradually began to change from the late 1990s. Leading politicians considered that social conflict had diminished to the extent that the CRS and EGM (Mobile Gendarmerie squadrons) could be drawn on as a reservoir of personnel for the fight against ‘petty crime urban disorders and antisocial behaviour, which they now claimed was a priority. This shift began during Lionel Jospin’s government (1997-2002) and accelerated thereafter. The plan of action that formed an appendix to the internal security law of 29 August 2002 said: ‘Mobile forces were created in a particular historical context marked by periods of riots and collective unrest. The calmer democracy that our country has known for many years now allows for a radical change in the doctrine of use of mobile forces. This systematic policy, which breaks with the priority of public order, makes it possible to put the 30,000 men who today make up the mobile forces at the service of everyday security.’

The number of police and gendarmes available for maintaining order decreased: it had fallen to 25,786 by 2015 (15% fewer than in 2002), even though their responsibilities had diversified. The resulting over-stretch these units experienced led to the rise of Departmental Intervention Companies (CDIs), which exist locally in various forms and are made up of urban police officers who mainly target ‘urban violence’ and drug trafficking. Identifiable by two royal blue stripes on their helmets (to distinguish them from the CRS’s yellow), they have become a mainstay in law enforcement since the late 2000s. In addition to the backup they provide in numerical terms, they are more autonomous in their command and operational structure than the CRS and EGM. They also appear to be better adapted to the judicialisation of policing.

Arrests used to be only a minor part of managing demonstrations (for example, after they had broken up). General Bertrand Cavallier, former head of the CPGM, explained that the traditional approach focused on ‘absorbing violence, which is generally a temporary phenomenon. This is the concept of acceptable disorder. What is the ultimate desired effect? Are we going to pay attention to a few instances of damage or are we going to appreciate that after the mood grows heated, normality returns and we will be able to discuss and try to respond to the expectations of the demonstrators, even if they have been violent? (4)

Identifying troublemakers

From the early 2000s, the punitive turn of successive governments became evident. The aim was to end ‘impunity’ by identifying and arresting troublemakers. The CRS and EGM began using video surveillance and more recently Coded Marking Products, which leave traces on the skin and clothing, both of which enable intervention after the event. Prosecutors are now quick to authorise preventive arrests and have organised their service to respond quickly in an emergency. Above all, there has been a revision of tactics, which now distinguishes between compliant demonstrators and those who engage in illegal acts (‘troublemakers’), who must now be pulled out even from the middle of a protest.

This distinction is clearly reflected in the national policing plan adopted in 2021. It formulates two ‘distinct or complementary’ objectives for managing demonstrations: ‘the immediate dispersal of hostile groups and, at the same time, rapid and targeted arrests facilitated by the implementation of tactical devices allowing contact with identified individuals.’ Although the EGM and CRS have units capable of carrying out these tasks, in practice they fall to CDIs, especially the anti-crime brigades (BAC) and the controversial motorised brigades for the repression of violent action (BRAV-M), created in 2019.

Every citizen is called upon to become a demonstrator and I share the view that a demonstration is a corrective to the ballot box

Commissioner Jean-Marc Berlioz

Despite the efforts that have gone into explaining that these tactics are complementary, they are in part contradictory. ‘Impacting’ or ‘striking’ ‘hostile groups’ often has the effect of halting marches and turning them violent. Police charges, like tear gas, are indiscriminate. They affect the less experienced protestor most of all, cause misunderstandings and spark anger. Moreover, the physical risk when a small number of officers intervene in a crowd increases the probability of police violence. Numerous videos on social media attest to the chaos caused by the intervention of these non-specialised urban police units; some show the conflicts that break out with the EGM and CRS, whose operations they disrupt. As they can easily get into difficulty, they are also quicker to deploy distraction grenades and Flash-Ball launchers (such as the LBD 40).

Flash-Ball launchers, a ‘sub-lethal’ weapon which first appeared in the mid-1990s, were originally intended for specialist units neutralising violent individuals or hostage-takers. Their use then gradually spread to BACs and CDIs and they became widely deployed after the outbreak of trouble in the French banlieues in 2005; these were the forces which systematised their use in demonstrations. During the Gilets Jaunes protests, out of the 13,460 LBD shots fired between 17 November 2018 and 5 February 2019, 85% were discharged by urban police and 15% by the CRS.

Over the same period, the gendarmerie said it had fired around a thousand LBD shots (5). While the controversy over the harm they cause has reduced the use of these weapons, they have nonetheless become a standard piece of equipment. The annual report of the General Inspectorate of the National Police (IGPN) records 6,684 shots in 2021 compared to 1514 in 2012, a fourfold increase in nine years.

The municipal police’s role in handling protests alters demonstrators’ behaviour. Their training leads them to think of themselves as ‘hunters’, so officers have little inclination to consider protestors as ‘citizens who are temporarily misguided’. Instead, they see them as offenders (or their accomplices) and treat them accordingly: using humiliation and other forms of bullying, manhandling during arrests etc.

‘The brutalisation of policing’

All these factors help to explain the ‘brutalisation of policing’ (6) that has been apparent since the mid-2010s, with the repression of the Gilets Jaunes movement as its clearest manifestation. However, for it to be fully understood, we need to make a connection with how demonstrations have been delegitimised as a mode of political action.

Maintaining order is not a two-way confrontation between police and protesters. It’s a triangular relationship that also involves those in power. Throughout the 20th century, particular forms of protest behaviour gradually developed. This involved adaptation by the forces of law and order, but also by citizens, who gradually abandoned the register of riots for a more codified repertoire, such as demonstrations. The development of marches, banners, demands, slogans and self-policing is part of a process of learning how to protest (7). However, this is only possible because it enables political negotiation; in other words, it is recognised as a democratic expression of dissent. Commissioner Jean-Marc Berlioz, deputy director of public security at the Paris police headquarters, observed in 1997, ‘Now, every citizen is called upon one day to become a demonstrator and I share the view that a demonstration is a corrective to the ballot box’ (8).

Such a view now seems at odds with that of governing elites, who lack their predecessors’ experience of collective action. Elections (however fragile the result), from which they derive their position, are seen as the only source of legitimacy, akin to a blank cheque. The refusal to negotiate with the main trade unions (despite their representative legitimacy) and mobilised groups (such as healthcare workers), and the use of every possible legal instrument to muzzle parliament (the use of article 49.3 to force through legislation without a vote, limitation of debating time, disciplinary sanctions) attest to a vertical conception of power that pays little heed to contestation.

In speeches, words like ‘mobs’, ‘packs’ or ‘hordes’ reactivate a vision of an ignorant, brutal rabble that Turgot would have recognised. A similar policy is applied in practice: displaying force to intimidate and using justice to neutralise, even temporarily. Premature charges, misuse of tear gas, LBD or soakings with water cannon, no-go zones, preventive custody, fines, police records and mass deferrals all combine to make demonstrations more inhospitable, uncertain and unsafe.

Two sides of the same coin

The brutalisation of policing and of politics are two sides of the same coin. The refusal to negotiate and the rejection of protest as a legitimate means of expression provoke anger that increases the level of violence. The media’s focus on insignificant things such as burning bins or vandalised street furniture reinforces this dynamic. In the struggles ‘to impose meaning on the event’ (9), the decision to report the most spectacular acts rather than core demands – which are often expressed with great inventiveness – lend greater weight to the former. Indeed, they find an echo inversely proportional to their importance in the protest. This in return provokes a toughening of police action and makes it easier to discount movements even though they are massive, reducing them to the activities of those interior ministers conveniently call Black Blocs (dark-clad protestors portrayed as violent), anarcho-autonomists or the ultra-left.

The immediate political benefits of this disruption of the meaning of protests are clear. Its medium-term effects are more doubtful. First, it makes protesters adapt. They learn to protect themselves better (protective equipment against tear gas, the presence of street medics etc). They reveal police violence by filming it and adopt strategies that favour confrontation, mobility and unpredictability rather than chanting slogans. These developments could then lead to a return to more radical modes of action, such as rioting, sabotage, arson, blockades and occupation.

But, above all, governing a country presupposes a minimum level of consent from those who are governed. A quid pro quo. Just after the Fourmies tragedy, the deputy Alexandre Millerand – later a minister, then president (1920-24) – told interior minister Constans, ‘If the republic was founded, if it exists and has been maintained through every crisis, you owe it, as you well know, entirely to these millions of workers in the factories, fields and mines who today expect the republic to make the social reforms that are their due.’ His speech finds a strange echo in that of Gérard Mardiné, then secretary-general of the white-collar union confederation (CFE-CGC), who addressed the Senate’s social affairs committee this February: ‘Who are you pursuing your policy for? French workers or Anglo-Saxon pension funds?’

Both remind us that the establishment and consolidation of a democratic state in France are inseparable from the protections it has had to provide to the status of wage earners, that is, the compromises reached between labour and capital. The obvious imbalance that has been established in favour of the most privileged – which there is no attempt even to conceal any more – undermines this contract. The social and political elites who are responsible for it are thus dismantling piece by piece a structure of which they are the ignorant beneficiaries.

Representative democracy does not function like a polite, hushed dialogue between shareholders on a board or an international organisation’s steering committee. It also lives and expresses itself through outbursts of collective mobilisations that periodically renew the balance of power between representatives and represented. By publicly recalling the interests of the majority, these protests contribute to the legitimacy of delegating political power much better than directives on penal policy, instructions on tear gas grenades or doctrines for the use of Flash-Ball launchers. France: the rise of the robocop, by Laurent Bonelli (Le Monde diplomatique

Back to top button