The President is acting tough on crime this week, without any real substance
Emmanuel Macron this week gave an address from the French département of New Caledonia, calling for “order, order, order” in support of his increasingly fractious police forces. The speech in the middle of the Pacific came shortly after four Marseille police officers were charged with beating an alleged suspect during this summer’s riots, “leaving him for dead”.
The decision to detain one of the men, who shot the victim in the head with a rubber bullet, was denounced by national police chief Frédéric Veaux, who said that “ahead of a possible trial, a police officer should not be in prison, even if he may have committed serious faults or errors in the course of his work”. France’s police, despite its obvious faults, is still broadly popular, especially as the country was shocked by the violence, pillage and destruction wrought over several days by nihilistic young rioters without slogans or leaders.
Whether Macron’s Pacific speech indicates a real turning point in French policing is debatable, as the President has a habit of saying what he feels will most appeal to public opinion. Indeed, there is a “Macron political compass” meme doing the rounds on social media, listing his more tub-thumping utterances from “Marshall Pétain was a great soldier in WWI” to “France committed crimes against humanity in Algeria”. After six years, most of the country has stopped treating such declarations as anything but performative.
The French President’s support for the police is complicated by what he increasingly sees as the failings of their real boss, current Minister of the Interior Gérald Darmanin, who is one of the rare truly political characters in a Cabinet mostly adorned with nonentities. Darmanin, a former Les Républicains member, was picked as a law-and-order figurehead who would spare the President exactly the kind of troubles France has just been through, and who would balance out the Left-wingers in the Cabinet.
It says a lot about Darmanin’s weakness that neither Veaux nor Paris police chief Laurent Nuñez, who tweeted his support of the former, has been sanctioned for their actions. Only recently, in a parliamentary debate on the riots and their instigators, the minister referred to French police as “children of 18, 19, 20 years of age, who never got a great education […] I’m not at the head of the Ministry of Justice, where people have chosen to take competitive exams after graduate and post-graduate studies.”
There is some truth to this. It has become so difficult to hire new cops that the duration of their training has been reduced from one year to eight months. They feel — with some justice — that they are overworked, underpaid, sent into dangerous situations in areas where they can be greeted by anything from mortar and shotgun fire to washing machines being dropped on their head from the upper floors of council housing buildings. Their suicide rate is also strikingly and persistently high, leading to a surge in resignations.
Understandably, the police felt insulted by their own boss. Darmanin was mirroring an incident when Macron called the workers of a Breton pork slaughterhouse “illiterate”, which predictably went down like un ballon en plomb. The gendarmes, however, are part of the military, far better trained, and provide the country with elite anti-terrorist and special intervention units.
Macron has just performed a hesitant Cabinet reshuffle, in which unknowns have been replaced by other unknowns, and the hopes of some — including Darmanin, who wanted PM Élisabeth Borne’s job — were dashed. The President will therefore be hoping for a relatively harmonious few months ahead. His new, or at least renewed, law-and-order stance is essentially a propitiatory offering to the gods of spin: the country is still €3 trillion in debt, and it’s unlikely it can hire new police troops. Better yield to them, and consider the political consequences later.