france injury eye
© Lucas Barioulet/AFP via Getty Images
Jerome Rodrigues (L), one of the leading figures of the gilets jaunes movement, and four other protesters who claim to have been injured by police in recent months.
Since the appearance of the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) movement in December 2018, and with the recent demonstrations and strikes against pension reform, the question of police violence in France has entered the mainstream.

And the stream of shocking social media videos continues: at an anti-pension reform demonstration in Lyon this year, a police officer fired a teargas grenade at students filming the crowd from the balcony of their apartment. Another one fired a "flash-ball" at a demonstrator at point-blank range. At a gathering in the centre of Paris, police appeared to throttle Cédric Chouviat, a 42-year-old motorcycle courier, who later died with a broken larynx. These images - of the police beating vulnerable people, blinding others or blowing off their hands - have forced the authorities to admit that police violence actually exists.

Until now, the head of state had seemed to rule out any discussion of the matter. In March 2019, during his "great national debate", President Macron said, "Do not speak of 'repression' or 'police violence'; such words are unacceptable in a state under the rule of law." The same week the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, urged the government to undertake a "full investigation of all reported cases of excessive use of force".

Confronted with pictures of a police officer tripping up a demonstrator, prime minister Édouard Philippe admitted for the first time that there was a problem, describing the footage as "violent and unacceptable". Interior minister Christophe Castaner followed suit, stressing that policing must be "exemplary". For his part, Macron claims to expect "top-grade professional practice". Either this marks a genuine change of tune or it is just a means of defusing public outrage.

The modern-day French police are shaped by the violence of their history - many of their methods of surveillance and repression found their way to the homeland from the repertoire of forces in charge of "indigenous north Africans" in former French colonies. Throughout the colonial period, police agents and officers took their experiences from places such as Algeria and applied them to the policing of working-class neighbourhoods and the quelling of insurrections in mainland France. The manhunt, capture and strangulation techniques that recently killed Adama Traoré or Chouviat, and the use of sexual violence to humiliate, as in the case of Théo Luhaka in 2017, are part of this long history.

But the story of police violence goes hand in hand with efforts to expose it to the wider public. In the early 1970s, organisations such as the Arab workers' movement started condemning "racist policing crimes". They tried to counter attempts by the police to criminalise victims by describing people who had been killed to the media as "repeat offenders", "drug abusers", responsible for the violence they suffered. The brutal, racist behaviour of French police was never treated as such. The term bavure, or blunder, is still used for police "encounters" that end in death.

Come the early 2000s, new types of independent media gave families and supporters of victims an outlet, and in the 2010s mainstream newspapers finally took on board the concept of "police violence", albeit in quotation marks to cast doubt on its validity. It was not until 11 January 2020 that Le Monde referred to, "what can only be described, without inverted commas, as police violence".

The recent changes in police violence are part and parcel of the neoliberal restructuring that started in the early 1970s with the launch of global security and defence markets. New approaches to management evolved to boost police productivity, which increasingly governed itself like a "business" with "targets" to achieve. The police are valued for their performance in hitting these targets; and the easiest way to do this is to make arrests for drug possession or irregular identity papers, which means targeting ethnic minorities and the working classes.

The number of fatalities caused by French police has more than doubled in the past five years, now standing at an average of 25 to 35 victims a year. The victims are still mainly from ethnic minorities and working class. Whether they face demonstrators or banlieue youths, police officers perpetrate the forms of violence that the upper classes deem necessary to prop up an increasingly unequal social order. Police violence is not the result of the French state losing control: it is a long-established technique of government.

Recent changes and acknowledgments that something is wrong are nothing more than smokescreens. As if to illustrate this point, the recent announcement that the police would stop using GLI-F4 teargas grenades was followed by plans to replace it with another teargas grenade, GM2L, which some have argued is just as bad.

None of this violence has lessened the will for popular resistance. Just as the family and friends of victims of police violence have organised around this for decades, the gilets jaunes movement has brought new segments of the population into contact with police violence. Despite it, they persist in organising and building forms of solidarity, hinting at a freer form of life.
Mathieu Rigouste is a researcher in social sciences and the author of La Domination Policière (2013)