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Is the French Police above the law ? The Erosion of a Democratic state

If you have been keeping up with the news a bit lately, surely this name may sound vaguely familiar. The Theo Affair, the latest controversy surrounding the French police is making a lot of noise within and beyond France’s borders. On February 3rd, what should have been a routine patrol incident turned into a violent altercation between four policemen and the young Theo.

The scene, caught on tape by city cameras shows the disproportionate use of force of the police officers against Theo laying on the ground, pants down, missing a shoe. The gravity of the blunder intensifies when Theo, taken to a hospital after the violence of the arrest, claims to have been raped by one of the agent with his baton. Later that day, he underwent surgery due to the severity of his wounds. Following this event, huge demonstrations broke out in France. From peaceful walks to several cars lit on fire, the French population has been demonstrating its anger and concerns.

A history of police brutality.
Unfortunately, disproportionate use of violence by the police force is not unprecedented. France has a history of police brutality that is often unknown or disregarded. For a state which stands on solid democratic foundations, the recurrence of unethical use of force by police officers cannot remain covert to the public eye. The goal is not merely to blame the police for the sake of criticism, nor to undermine the demanding and necessary daily work of police offers. What is important is to shed light on an existing reality which in the long run erodes society and its institutions. For a country that claims to defend human rights, the unlawful actions of the police force weaken its democratic foundation. How can a country enforce the law and the legal decisions it entails in a legitimate fashion when there is a growing popular distrust of law enforcement? Compared to its European neighbors, France has the lowest ranking when it comes to the level of trust of the population towards the police force. According to the French sociologist Sebastian Roché, in 2015 only 47% of the population trust the police and this number is even lower in suburban areas. Moreover, while all incidents of violence against police officers are registered, there is no existing database for unlawful violence committed by the police against citizens. Consequently, organizations such as ACAT, a French NGO against Torture and the Death Penalty, calls for more transparency. Their 2016 campaign is clear, summed up in one sentence:

“We know how many people die yearly of wasp bites, of police brutality we do not”

What we do have is a 2005 Amnesty International report that gathered extensive data from 1991 till 2005 regarding numerous cases of unlawful use of force, fatal shootings, ill-treatment and death in police custody regarding French policemen. The report highlights the racial component of police brutality which often targets foreigners or French citizens of foreign ethnicity. Last but not least, the non-governmental organization concludes that too often “police failure to carry out prompt, impartial, independent and thorough internal investigations into police misconduct or abuse […].”

2015 – The French State of Emergency
This lack of accountability regarding the actions of the French police force has been reinforced since the 2015 state of emergency. Following the tragic terrorist attack on the French journal Charlie Hebdo on January 7th 2015, France has called a state of emergency. The events at Charlie Hebdo followed by the shooting at the Bataclan on November 13th 2015 where terrorist attacks that the government believed necessitated an increase in police and military presence. Without questioning the necessity of such actions, it is imperative that we underline the importance of not turning a blind eye to the dangerous excesses of unlawful violent police actions on citizens considering law enforcement’s new powers. International bodies such as the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, or the UN Committee against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment have officially sanctioned France’s police brutality. The State of Emergency can not be used as an excuse for growing police violence.

Impartial monitoring

Questioning, criticizing and sanctioning a police force for its missteps is not weakening to the state of emergency the government has found necessary. On the contrary, appropriate sanctions could lead to the creation a virtuous circle where the population trusts and does not fear the powers of its own police force. Recommendations from the FIACAT and Amnesty International call for the creation of an independent body to supervise police for excessive use of force. It is unfortunate that all too often, the judicial system holds a bias when it comes to cases involving the police force. Thus, appealing to an independent, non governmental and impartial body is a necessary step to healing the rift between police and the community. This step is attainable if society understands that accountability in law enforcement does not equate to the weakening of state law enforcement power and effectiveness. On the contrary, continuous unlawful use of force against citizens may lead to growing distrust and fear by the population against the police. While a comparison to other authoritative states may seem uncalled for, history has proved us that it is an easy trap for any state to fall in.

Photo: Flickr, commercial use permitted

About Zineb El Koulali

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