Commentators are wrong to suggest the country's officers are unusually violent
Since Nahel Merzouk was fatally shot by a police officer, sparking France’s worst riots since 2005, various commentators have claimed that the French police are unusually violent — and that this helps to explain the turbulent reaction. In the face of these claims, it is worth looking at what the data says.
“How the killing of a teen fits into France’s history of police brutality” runs the title of an article in the Washington Post. “French policing has a tendency to violence,” claims Jon Henley in the Guardian. “French cops have gotten more heavy-handed than anywhere else in Europe,” argues Michele Barbero in Foreign Policy. Yet aside from a few ad hoc figures, none of these articles presents supporting data.
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To back up the claim that French police officers are unusually violent, one would need to show that they injure or kill more people than their counterparts in other, similar countries. Unfortunately, there is no comparative database on police use of force — as there is for, say, homicide. One must therefore track down data from individual governments’ websites. This is no easy feat, given the number of languages spoken in Europe.
Another issue is that countries may define police violence differently. For example, England and Wales records deaths “in or following police custody”, including those which result from “injuries or other medical problems that are identified or that develop while a person is in custody”. It’s not clear that these are cases of police violence, per se.
To evaluate whether French officers are, in fact, unusually violent, I obtained data on the number of people fatally shot by police from seven Western countries: France, the Netherlands, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US.
The French government has only been tracking police use of force since 2018, and only for the years 2019–2021 does it provide a breakdown of deaths “on the occasion of a police mission” by cause. Hence I obtained the number of fatal police shootings in each country over the same three-year period (deaths by taser were included). After dividing each figure by three, I calculated the rate per 10 million people. The results are shown below.
Of these seven countries, France has the second lowest rate of fatal police shootings at 2 per 10 million people. There is therefore no evidence that the French police are unusually violent. Of course, it is plausible that if I’d been able to obtain data for other European countries, France might have come slightly higher in the rankings. But even then, it’s clearly not an outlier on the continent.
What’s more, countries like Australia, New Zealand and Canada are not known for their rioting. Yet they all have higher rates of fatal police shootings than France. (Even the French-speaking province of Quebec has a much higher rate.) It’s therefore questionable whether “police brutality” is what explains the forceful reaction to Merzouk’s death.
Perhaps French police use more non-lethal force than their counterparts in other countries? This is much harder to evaluate. And even if they do, it could be an effect rather than a cause of public unrest: we all know that the French protest more than most European nations. There is little basis for claiming that French police are unusually violent, and it’s irresponsible to make such a claim without supporting data.
This article previously gave the French rate of fatal police shootings as 1.4 per 10 million people. It was corrected on 5th July 2023.