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do the French police misuse tear gas?

Do French police officers use tear gas excessively? Between the incidents at the Stade de France on Saturday May 28 – where Liverpool supporters were asphyxiated under the jets – and the muscular dispersion of travelers from the Gare de l’Est a week later, on June 4, still with tear gas , the choice of the forces of order never ceases to question.

Denis Jacob, secretary general of the Alternative police union, and Sebastian Roché, political scientist specializing in criminology and author of The Unfinished Nation. Youth facing the school and the police (Grasset, 2022), each give their point of view. Cross interview.

Marianne: SSaturday, June 4 at Gare de l’Est, the police used tear gas on travelers who were trying to enter replacement buses made available by the SNCF. The previous week, a similar scene occurred at the Stade de France during the Real-Liverpool Champions League final. In both cases, did the police really have no choice but to tear gas?

Dennis Jacob: In this kind of crowd, there is always a risk of people being injured. The only means at our disposal in these cases is the use of tear gas to disperse people. It’s true that it’s never pleasant to be gassed. It takes you by the eyes, by the throat, by the nose. But we have no other “non-violent” means to put an end to this kind of general gathering.

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At the Stade de France, it was a happy mess. We have to agree to say that we did not manage the situation. On the other hand, I do not accept that all the blame is placed on the police. If our managers had organized things in advance with all the players, we wouldn’t have had this kind of problem. Of the thirteen entrances, only two were open, so everyone went to the same place. That’s tens of thousands of people. Enough to give pride of place to pickpockets and petty criminals, who must have been between 300 and 400. There were thefts, injuries, sexual violence. This situation, we had never known it. We had never seen so many delinquents gathered on a festive event.

Sebastian Roche: Instead of gassing, we could have equipped the police with a megaphone to communicate with the crowd. Communication is an essential element of the avenues explored to reform our police. But there is a second aspect, that of not perceiving the crowd as a monolithic identity. You have different sets in the crowd and they can’t all be treated the same.

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This is one of Beauvau’s promises of safety. Training means making agents learn new methods: favoring feedback on experience, learning from mistakes, setting up communication teams. The Germans have loudspeakers, diaphones, and dozens of agents are in the demonstrations to serve as interlocutors for the participants.

But, if this training is not a priority objective, it will always be subject to delays and insufficient funding. Because training also means that police officers will have to temporarily leave the field to be sent for training. However, leaders cannot invent more police officers in the field and more police officers in training at the same time. They must therefore choose their priorities.

Is there an increase in the use of tear gas in France? We have the impression that the police have sometimes been able to use it without valid reasons during certain demonstrations, such as that against the Labor Law or against Extinction Rebellion activists in 2019.

Dennis Jacob: This risk has already been noted, especially during the demonstration of Extinction Rebellion. Indeed, there have been disproportionate uses in this context. But even if the people are peaceful, as they were then since it was a “sit-in” [manifestation consistant à rester assis sur la voie publique, N.D.L.R.], when there is a disturbance of public order, our role is to intervene. In this situation, either we gave a charge or shots of tear gas.

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But what to use tomorrow if we are forbidden to do so? Tear gas is the least dangerous and least violent form of policing. If we find another solution, the police will obviously use it. The fact is that if we don’t intervene, we risk having the worst. This is what happened at the Stade de France.

Sebastian Roche: We can look at the use of gases specifically, but I’m tempted to go a little further. The most problematic part concerns the number of deaths during police operations. If we take the last five years, at least 25 people die per year, except in 2017 and excluding terrorism. It’s something that hasn’t happened since 1977.

This increase can be attributed to the regulations, which changed in February 2017, and now allow the police to use their weapons, either to protect land or on people who do not comply. One could also question the introduction of new means of intervention, such as long weapons after the attacks, which are weapons of war made to deal with terrorist actions.

Isn’t there also an increase in incivility and violence among our fellow citizens?

Dennis Jacob: We live in a society where we oppose everything. As soon as you tell people “no, you can’t do that”, it turns into a fight. I don’t know if it’s due to confinement but, in any case, people are much more aggressive than before. They challenge even the law. As much as we are familiar with that from habitual offenders, but not from the average citizen.

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Public discourse also has its role to play. When you see a Jean-Luc Mélenchon make the remarks he has made in recent days [après la mort d’une femme lors d’un contrôle d’identité, N.D.L.R.], like what the police kills, and that the president is silent, the lambda people say to themselves that he is right. This gives them the impression of being legitimate to challenge public authority through violence.

Afterwards, we cannot hide that some police officers may have problematic behaviors that are not adapted to the situation. But when we are caught in crowd movements with hundreds of people, we are human. One cannot hide fear and fear for one’s own physical integrity, resulting in behavior that is not necessarily appropriate.

Sebastian Roche: We cannot say that there is an increase in incivility. We are in a society in decline in terms of violence. We need only take the example of those made for women. Society rejects this violence but also that of the police and priests. We no longer accept the use of unjust and disproportionate force.

There is a decrease in homicides in France and in Europe, linked to the fact that people accept these behaviors less. But these are very, very long processes, lasting tens or even hundreds of years. Let’s take the example of violence against women again: the first feminists appeared in the 1970s and we are only beginning to take an interest in judicial treatment. Therefore, the use of lethal violence by the police is an anomaly: it runs counter to the evolution of society.

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Especially since we can observe that, when teenagers are checked repeatedly, the police become in their eyes unfair and brutal. This means that they no longer believe in the democratic value of the country and no longer travel to vote. Relations with the police therefore have very corrosive consequences on their relations with the Republic.

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