A video of a music producer being beaten up by three policemen in Paris has revived the debate about police brutality in France. While the unions say such incidents should be treated as isolated one-offs, others, such as researcher Jacques de Maillard, point to structural problems within the institution.
"Unacceptable " images that "shame us": On his Facebook page, French President Emmanuel Macron did not mince his words in a November 27 posting denouncing the behaviour of the police officers who beat up and racially insulted Michel Zecler, a 42-year-old Black music producer, in his studio in Paris's 17th arrondissement (district). Filmed by a CCTV camera and then broadcast by the Loopsider website, the "15 minutes of racist beatings and insults" sparked a national outcry and forced the government to act. The police officers have since been suspended and are now under investigation by the police disciplinary body.
The assault on Zecler comes amid heightened tensions over police violence. On November 23, police hit demonstrators, dispersed tear gas and chased people out of tents and into the street while violently clearing a makeshift camp of mostly Afghan migrants in the Place de la Republique. The following day, Parliament voted to move forward with a new security bill that critics worry could make it illegal for journalists or bystanders to film instances of police misconduct.
In an attempt to understand the structural roots of such police abuses, FRANCE 24 spoke to Jacques de Maillard, a researcher specialising in police issues and the director of CESDIP (Centre for Sociological Research on Law and Penal Institutions).
FRANCE 24: This extremely shocking attack comes at a time when the government is trying to ban the broadcasting of videos of on-duty police officers with the proposed new security law. How do you interpret the timing of these events?
Jacques de Maillard: There's a really tragic irony to it. This outbreak of violence, which is neither legitimate nor proportionate, shows once again how essential transparency is when it comes to the police. All the more so since the video here allows us to challenge the police officers' false report. This case is particularly shocking and rightly provoked a very strong emotional reaction but it is not an isolated incident. Several videos have been released in 2020 that illustrate these kinds of cases, including that of Cedric Chouviat, the delivery man who died during a police stop in January; the racist remarks of the Seine-Saint-Denis police officers in April; or the excessive violence displayed during the evacuation of the migrant camp on Place de la Republique on November 23. Beyond the emotional factors and the irony of the situation, the recurrence of events like these highlights a structural problem that cannot be reduced, as the police often say, to isolated acts by individuals who must be punished.
Are these violent and racist outbursts related to a problem of recruitment within the police force, or to the supervision of officers in the field?
First of all, let us remember that most police interventions take place without major problems. However, there are structural problems in terms of recruitment, training, philosophy and management. Our studies show that many people choose to join the police for noble reasons: the protection of citizens and a taste for action. The institution promotes this heroic version of the job, but the reality is far removed from the myth. Officers in the field sometimes feel as if they're trying to empty the sea with a spoon, without support from their commanders and under constant criticism from the outside world. The work is exhausting, frustrating and breeds resentment. This spiral leads some police officers to want to take justice into their own hands, a pattern we see frequently.
Problems were also identified during recruitment sessions, particularly with panels that focused on whether the recruit would be a good colleague, while questions of know-how and interpersonal skills, which are absolutely crucial to the job, were relegated to the background.
Finally, the problems are exacerbated in the Paris region due to the demographics. Most police officers come from the provinces and want to return there. At the beginning of their careers, they find themselves working in complex neighbourhoods that they don't know, and where they don't necessarily want to be. This situation generates high staff turnover and a shortage of personnel, particularly among local supervisors such as brigadiers, reinforcing the feeling of disorientation and abandonment among young recruits.
The question of racism is also an issue: police officers are not all racist, of course, but their working conditions can lead them to adopt negative stereotypes about minority populations, which result in discriminatory practices.
Although the institution is extremely hierarchical, police officers perform many actions and activities on a daily basis without any oversight from their superiors. This leeway can be very positive, but it can also lead to serious abuses.
Is the interior minister partly responsible for this situation?
The minister plays a complicated balancing role. He or she must both support the police and insist that they respect the rights of the people. These two requirements can become contradictory, as in the case of Gerald Darmanin, whose unqualified support for the police is now coming back at him like a boomerang. After having said in July that he "choked" when he heard the word "police violence", how can he manage these types of scandals today? Especially since his words, like the government's stance, can have an effect on police conduct. By minimising their responsibility, he is aggravating the problem because he conveys a negative image of the relationship between the police and the people. Darmanin had to come to terms with the police because his predecessor had been heavily criticised by the unions. However, this short-term political strategy will not solve the underlying problems of the tension between the police and the people. Today, the challenge is one of reorganisation; the system needs to be completely reassessed, beginning with practices on the ground and prioritising good relations with the public and the proportionate use of force. The police institution needs to do something about the cynicism that is spreading among the police and that sometimes leads to tragedies.
This piece has been translated from the original in French.