The divide between France and its police


Last month French interior minister Claude Guéant announced a drive to put thousands more police on the streets to create "a climate of security" and called on senior officers to encourage closer relations with local populations. But the relationship between the police and public in France has long been a troubled one, rooted in history and pervaded by a strong mistrust on both sides. In an interview with Mediapart, Christian Mouhanna, a researcher and academic specialised in police and judicial issues, identifies the causes and explains why so many attempts to bridge the divide have failed, creating an increasing malaise within the police itself.

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The relationship between the police and public in France has long been a troubled one, pervaded by a strong mistrust on both sides. Some explanation of this can arguably be found in historical events like the collaborationist role of the French police during the German occupation of the country between 1940 and 1944, and its lack of independence from ruling political powers, such as in the social upheavals of 1968. But beyond this, changes in French society, and which mirror those elsewhere, have created new challenges and tensions, exacerbated by swings in government security policy and political demands for police to meet statistical targets.

Christian Mouhanna, a sociologist at the French national scientific research institute, the CNRS, has spent 15 years studying the gulf between the French and their police in widely different neighbourhoods and populations. The results are compiled in his book, La Police Contre les Citoyens?1 - Police vs. Citizens? - published earlier this year (pictured right).

In this interview with Louise Fessard, he returns to the root causes of the problem, why so many attempts to resolve it have failed, and explains the reasons for a deepening malaise within the police over recent government security initiatives.



Mediapart:What is the relationship today between the French public and the police?

Christian Mouhanna: "The police know that they have lost control on the ground and that fewer and fewer people trust them. This created a vicious circle. The less the police are involved in a neighbourhood, the less they know people there, and the less they can work with precision and target their initiatives.

This gives rise to a police forcethat maintains law and order, that exists to control things and which has forgotten that above all, it is supposed to be a public service. There is a gap between what people expect and the reality of the service they get.

In the most volatile areas, if the police are called, either they do not come because they are afraid, often with good reason, or else they come in force with several cars, which gives the public the impression of overkill. Their way of intervening is not adapted to expectations.

Another aspect of the problem is the obsession with quantitative targets, which pushes them into seeing everything in judicial terms. A typical instance of this kind is when there is a dispute in a family or between neighbours. Instead of seeking discussion and mediation, the police will seek a victim and a perpetrator. The perpetrator will be booked and remanded in custody. If a legal procedure is begun, this will create even more problems between the neighbours in question, which was not the intended outcome when the police were called.

The vast majority of problems thatmake people go to the police are not matters of security. When residents complain because some youngsters are hanging around in a stairwell or playing football in front of their door, that is not a security problem. But if it is not dealt with in time, it can become one.

I get the impression there is agreat deal of waste. In cases where two neighbourhood police officers could calm down a tense situation, two coaches of CRS [riot police] will be sent in, but once the situation has degenerated, it is already too late.

And you have the same kind of situation in rural communities where you find groups of young people who are hanging around, are bored and frighten other residents. Tension mounts, the neighbours call the police, they take action and arrest everyone. The result is that everyone is frightened and the young people become even more antagonistic to a society that criminalises them."


Mediapart: It appears as if the police,from the constable to superior officers, are abandoning policing on the beat.Why is this?

C.M.: "Intervening on the ground when you do not know anyone and you are seen as an outside force is to put yourself in danger and run the risk of stones and other projectiles being thrown at you.

Some police officers have put a lot of effort into community policing1. But this requires a big commitment because they are constantly in contact with the local population, and a lot is demanded of them. It is much more comfortable to be governed by a distant authority than to be close to the public.

In the period from 1970 to 1990, if residents of a district did not see their own community police officer around, they would not hesitate to phone the police station to ask, 'How come the community police officer isn't here today?' When neighbourhood policing2 was introduced in 1997, people even sometimes had their police officer's mobile phone number.

Under this model, the discretionary nature of a police officer's job, that is, his or her autonomy on the ground, is reduced. Above all, police officers can no longer refuse to respond to people.

It is understandable that this makes the job richer, but also more constraining. On top of that, the job of being on the beat is right at the bottom of the ladder. It is where the latest recruits are sent, and this devalues the task even more.

The superior officers mistrust a community orientation as well, because when they put their troops at the service of the public, they lose control of their base. This is a fundamental contradiction of the system.

The police force is very hierarchical, yet on the ground the police officer is the only one who can evaluate the situation. This explains why management resorts to using GPS, statistics and activity reports to try and better control the base."


1: La police contre citoyens? is currently available in French only, published by Champ Social Editions, priced 15 euros (7 euros in pdf download form).

2: In the orginal French text, Christian Mouhanna refers to îlotage, a form of community policing first introduced in the 1970s.

3: In the original French text, police de proximité.

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