France: Hundreds rally against police violence as Senate offers officers near-total immunity

As people poured onto the streets of cities including Paris, Nantes and Rennes last night to demand justice for Theo, a 22-year-old social worker who was allegedly beaten and raped with a police baton, the French Senate has been examining/considering a new “public security” bill. The new set of guidelines are likely to extend the use of firearms, offer police immunity against prosecution over violence and broaden contempt law in a chilling crackdown on dissent.

In the following translated article, La Caisse de Solidarité looks at France’s long history of police brutality and explains how government and judiciary are trying to sweep away efforts to hold officers to account for their crimes.

This law responds to old demands from the major unions and comes during a period which, from the deaths of Remi Fraisse to that of Adama Traore, has seen police violence and crimes become less of a taboo subject in the media.

Over the past 50 years, 10 to 15 people have died every year at the hand of law enforcement. In the majority of cases, the person was unarmed. We have said over and over again that these deaths are never the result of misconduct but the result of normal police activity. Hence their unbearable regularity over time.

When the police deal with a disorder, they will often insult, get angry, injure, mutilate and sometimes murder. The recent hype around police brutality during the movement against the labour law has made some realise what was already common knowledge for some; the purpose of the police is to defend at all cost the social order, and to do this all means are permitted. In that respect the state of emergency, although increasing symbolically the possibilities of police impunity, only re-enforces the truth known by anyone who’s dealt with the police: they are an exception to law incarnate (the law doesn’t apply to them).

Live fire for all

Up until now the rules that allow the use of live ammunition were not exactly the same between police and the gendarmerie nationales. The latter, soldiers, already followed more liberal rules concerning the use of their firearms than those followed by regular police.

In the run up to the presidential election, the government is looking to end this difference with “a modification to codes of conduct and the rules of police engagement” to mirror those followed by the gendarmerie. In the future, legally, firearms can be used after a warning has been given to a person who is resisting/uncooperative and escaping.

In reality this right is already in effect: already in 1997 in Dammarie-les-Lys, a squad of the BAC (Anti-Criminality Brigade) shot a car driver in the back, Abdelkader Bouziane, who was refusing to stop. Of course there was no action, no proceedings taken against the police officer.

When it comes to the use of firearms, the situation on the ground shouldn’t change substantially. The gendarmeries already follow these rules and there is not a significant disparity in terms of deaths compared to the police. In reality it is essentially a symbolic measure.

By giving the signal that the rules of engagement are relaxed, it is just reaffirming the moral and legal support that the State provides to its armed wing. In these times when police actions are regularly questioned, when the “gendarme” who murdered Remi Fraisse in the ZAD of Sivens, probably will not face charges, the government chooses to escalate the situation by encouraging the forces of law and order to go further. Radicalisation is no doubt the most common political phenomenon of the moment.

The figures speak for themselves. In the case of deaths involving police over the past 30 years, only 30% of killer cops have been convicted and only 5% were incarcerated. If these murders aren’t recognised as such and are so lightly punished, it’s because the criminal justice system considers them to be merely collateral damage. This protection that the cops enjoy also extends to other practises like blinding by flash-ball or stinger grenade.

Contempt used as a weapon

The expansion of the police’s right to self-defence coincides with a more serious criminalisation of acts against the police. The attack against a police car with a molotov cocktail on Quai de Valmi, Paris, on May 18th last year and the one that happened at Viry-Chatillon on October 8th were treated as homicide attempts. Apart from potential pre-trial detention, these attitudes could entail a cop using his gun against simple molotov cocktails.

The government has shown on this occasion its generosity towards those who protect it. It’s attempting to slip an extra gift to the police with the reform of “contempt offences.” The judges, who supposedly represent the whole authority of justice, receive a greater protection than other civil servants in terms of contempt offences and hence breaches attract heavier convictions. Contempt for police should reach the same level, according to judges, in order to remind everybody to not rebel.

PNG - 53.5 ko

Police impunity is set for a good future. Indeed the offence of contempt is often met by police violence and serves (with the offence of rebellion) as cover for the most “zealous” officers. In addition, it’s a good way to break the most militant by creating an offence where there is none (police arrive and search someone, the tone rises and bang you’re nicked for contempt).

We can also suppose that it’s used by some of them to top up their incomes. Certain officers are regulars in the courtrooms. This application of the law inflates the statistics; a closed case, a victim and perpetrator. The number of offences for contempt has become relatively frequent in France, with slightly less than 20,000 cases each year [for comparison, the average was 335 cases a year in Britain between 2004-2008 ~ ed). It is also an area where the national police have become specialised — such cases bring in around €13.2 million compared to €604,000 for the gendarmerie in legal costs for defendants.

For a defendant, between fines and legal costs, these cases can represent a couple of times the legal minimum salary. The suspended sentences that often go with the fines constitute an excellent way to spread the fear of police and annihilate the desire of rebellion. It is also why this tool is so often used against social movements. It helps to increase fear of reoffending, which means prison time. It’s like being branded — “known to the cops.”

La Caisse de Solidarité (The solidarity fund)