An insider's account exposes how French police perpetuate a system where extreme hostility and racism is just a regular day at the office.
Valentin Gendrot's recently released book titled “Flic,” one of the many French slang terms for a police officer, reveals a number of disturbing issues within the police force in the French capital.
Gendrot, who spent two years undercover as a police officer in the 19th district of Paris — which hosts a number of minority groups and migrants —explains that just after three months of training he was armed and sent out to police the neighbourhood.
While the area has been widely described as dangerous – as a visitor, neighbour, and observer – the dangers are nowhere close to the violence perpetuated on the population by the police. The context of danger is critical here because it usually justifies heavy patrolling of the area.
Personally, as a reporter and researcher, I have seen violence perpetuated in cities across the world and the only fear I would have in the 19th district would be to get pickpocketed. Contextually speaking, there are much, much, more ‘dangerous’ areas in the city.
His encounters encompass a number of widespread issues in the French community, perpetuated by the police system. First, racism and abuse towards minorities, even children, homophobia, sexism, and the surprisingly poor conditions these officers work in – leaning into one of the many reasons police perpetuate violence they are trained to stop.
First, Gendrot reveals racist incidents as well as some that are common practice, for example, how officers frequently and almost exclusively refer to non-whites as ‘bastards.’ And minors? "Little bastards," he says.
He recounts one incident he participated in when a minor insulted an officer in a provoked encounter. The boy was taken into the van, the police unit then left their assigned district. The three others stood guard while one officer beat the youth in the van and left him in the street kilometres away from home.
Worse still, after this child filed a complaint against the officer, the undercover journalist witnessed falsifying evidence to cover up their tracks, even charging the youth. If that wasn't bad enough, he calls this a frequent occurrence and, as they are mostly minors, this essentially conditions a generation to despise the police system.
And cause for more alarm, the police officer in France is the everyday Frenchman or woman. They are not from the peripheries of society that believe in violence against youth and minorities, they are representatives of society.
By the author's own testimony, he explains, “These cops remind me of where I'm from. Often, they are from the provinces, like me. More often still, they come from working-class or middle-class backgrounds, like me. I don't have to dig very deep to adopt their codes. Their culture is that of my friends from elementary school and college, that of the guys on my football team, and of friends I have known since I was a kid.”
Police violence is not a novel phenomenon in the country – however, this expose has already triggered an internal investigation attempting to identify the officers described in the book. However, as explained through this experience, and many others, the police are likely to protect their own.
In June, a man was killed by police officers using the same chokehold technique that killed George Floyd in the United States. Cedric Chouviat, father of five, and a delivery-man was suffocated to death by four officers close to the Eiffel Tower for using his cell phone while on the scooter. There are audio and image documentation that shows Chouviat telling the officers repeatedly that he could not breathe.
The family and public outcry pushed the Interior Minister to instate a ban on this chokehold. The police did not even need to launch a formal protest – the threat of one was enough to have the ban revoked only weeks later.
Officers in France, it seems, are poorly trained, and quickly armed and dispersed, and empowered to behave with extreme hostility. With a history that even prompted international bodies to condemn police violence in the country, they commit all these acts under pitiable working conditions.
They earn a salary of around 1340 euro a month, are hated by most of the people they encounter, and often have to buy materials at their own expense. The reporter mentions the suicide of a colleague during his time undercover and spoke of the depression that haunted many. It seems bizarre that anyone would be willing to participate in this system at such a high personal cost.
By his own account, in a piece penned for Le Monde, Gendrot writes and summarises the failure of the police system, true for other states as is for France. He says, “In theory, cops are supposed to fight violence, racism and sexism in society. In practice, they are often an outpost. We can debate the causes, but the facts are there.”
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