Stoned, beaten and insulted, their vehicles torched by crowds of hostile youths, French police say they face an urban guerrilla war when they enter the run-down neighborhoods that ring the major cities.
“Our role is to guarantee the safety of people and property but the great difficulty today is that police are having problems ensuring their own safety,” said Jerome Hanarte of the Alliance-Police Nationale union.
Bedside television interviews with officers hospitalized after beatings in “les banlieues,” or suburbs, support statistics showing a 6.7 percent jump in violent crime in the 12 months to August.
Fourteen officers are hurt every day in the line of duty, unions estimate, and law and order is sure to feature prominently in next year’s presidential election.
The head of the French crime statistics body told Reuters the rise in attacks on police was partly due to Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2002 decision to order police back into tough areas, to disrupt the black economy that fuels crime.
CAUGHT IN THE MIDDLE
How much those frustrations are driving the violent reaction to police is hard to gauge but Nicolas Comte, general secretary of the Syndicat General de la Police (SGP), said officers now face guerrilla warfare in the suburbs.
“The simple presence of men in uniforms in some areas is no longer a provocation but a declaration of war in the minds of some louts,” he told a recent police union rally.
The spike in violence has sharpened the political debate and the left is demanding a return to community policing, with more officers on the beat making contacts with local people.
Dispirited officers complain they are caught in the middle.
“The latest insult I got was ‘Sarko’s suppo’ (suppository)—so I don’t know if it’s the police officer who is the target or our minister that’s the cause of the problem,” said a plain clothes officer in the tough Seine-Saint-Denis district.
Sarkozy is a hate figure for many suburban youths and his strong language about delinquents is blamed by many for fomenting last year’s suburban riots in which some 8,000 vehicles were torched along with schools, creches and other public buildings.
Guigon joined the force 10 years ago, attracted by the contact with the public and the chance to make a difference on the street with wayward youngsters. In the intervening period, society at large has done little to improve matters.
“Ten years later, I’m working in the police and we’re being told to help youngsters because the education system and the parents aren’t succeeding.”
Guigon favors a return to the community policing approach abandoned by Sarkozy in 2002, but not all her colleagues agree.
The plain clothes officer in Seine-Saint-Denis said seven colleagues were attacked recently after chasing a driver who skipped a checkpoint. Their vehicle was torched and they narrowly escaped serious injury.
“The high number of officers hurt means that police themselves don’t feel safe,” he said.
“That’s pretty serious, because if police don’t feel safe, you can imagine what the ordinary citizen feels,” added the officer who asked not to be identified.
To protect themselves, police often move in large groups—a tactic youngsters say is heavy-handed and overly aggressive.
Comte says the threat to police is so great in some neighborhoods they should exercise their “right to withdraw.” That means refusing to respond to emergency calls if they judge they cannot guarantee their own safety.