Almost every weekend in Paris, convoys of white police vans speed from place to place, sirens blaring, to unload squads of officers in anti-riot gear to monitor demonstrations or break up protests.
But this week it is the police themselves who will be demonstrating in the French capital.
Police unions have called for a “citizens’ march” in support of the force on Wednesday following the killing of Eric Masson, a 36-year-old officer shot dead this month in the city of Avignon during what appeared to be a routine street-corner drug bust.
Demoralisation among police is on the rise as researchers report that criminals are increasingly ready to use violence even against security forces. Masson was the latest victim in a spate of recent attacks targeting police, including the knife murder of a policewoman by a Tunisian Islamist in April.
Police have staged protests before. But the rally this week underlines a deep malaise in France’s 150,000-strong Police Nationale, with officers on the one hand angry about their treatment and the French public on the other losing confidence in the force.
“Police-bashing is routine,” said Thierry Clair of the trade union Unsa-Police. “The police suffer from the way their job is denigrated. They are not respected . . . We can’t continue like this.”
Members of the force have been accused of racism and brutality and were on the front line as President Emmanuel Macron’s administration sought to suppress anti-government protests by the gilets jaunes movement that started in 2018.
In turn, police representatives say officers are increasingly victims of criminal assault, used as “cannon fodder” by the state to deal with the consequences of social problems they are unqualified to handle and suffer from low morale, low pay and understaffing, and from a justice system many see as soft on offenders.
The government is trying to defuse the crisis by earmarking extra resources for the police and justice system. With less than a year until national elections, Macron has vowed to fulfil his promise of an extra 10,000 police before the end of his term and backed interior minister Gérald Darmanin’s crackdown on drug crime, terrorism and what the government calls Islamist “separatism”.
Jean Castex, French prime minister, responded to the Avignon killing by promising legislation to ensure anyone convicted of a crime against a police officer would be jailed for 30 years without remission.
The government has been moving steadily to the right on issues such as immigration and law and order in response to a rise in rightwing sentiment among voters.
A declaration by retired army generals last month lamenting the disintegration of French society and hinting at the need for a coup to save the country was condemned by the government but endorsed by Marine Le Pen, far-right leader of the Rassemblement National. One poll showed a majority of French voters agreed with the ex-generals.
Opinion polls indicate Le Pen will be Macron’s main challenger for the presidency next year. Support for the RN leader and her party is higher in the security forces than in the general population; an Ipsos poll for the Sciences Po Center for Political Research showed 60 per cent of police and military officers would be willing to vote for her in the second round of the election.
Analysts say physical attacks on police and other emergency responders such as firefighters are a sign of the broader tensions in French society and resentment of the authorities among young Muslims and others of immigrant descent.
“It’s a crisis that’s like a pot on the fire, it’s bubbling and boiling and suddenly the dish explodes and the lid blows off. We are very near,” warned Alain Bauer, professor of criminology at Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers in Paris.
“It’s not just a French issue. There’s generally less respect for authority, more drugs, more gangs, but [in France] there’s also a very poor connection between the police and the justice system,” he said. “The police think magistrates are soft on crime and the magistrates think policemen are fascists, racists and xenophobes.”
Béatrice Brugère, a magistrate and secretary-general of the trade union Unité Magistrats, said failure by successive governments to reform institutions such as the police had combined with “very strong tensions at the heart of French society” to generate a crisis.
Fundamental reforms were needed to resolve complex law and order challenges, Brugère said. The rigidity of the French system of “laïcité” — enforced secularism in public life — was a particular problem, she noted, because it left the state unable formally to recognise the different needs and perspectives of ethnic minorities or religious communities.
“There’s lots of crime in France. We live with this myth of a homogeneous society of universal republican values, but in fact there are lots of distinct communities. We are in denial,” she said.
“The system is not working. It’s a failure and what’s happening in the police is a consequence . . . Before we had periodic crises. Today it’s a systemic crisis in the functioning of the forces of law and order.”
Luc Rouban, a researcher at Sciences Po university who specialises in state institutions, said the police “feel they are trapped in a difficult situation, having to fix problems on the ground that have not been dealt with at the political level”.
The loss of confidence in the force, he said, reflected a society that had lost its way and had diminishing confidence in mainstream political parties, trade unions or other national organisations.
“All that has been obscured by the health crisis and the [Covid-19] pandemic,” he added. “But now that we are coming out of that, the problems are reappearing.”