Crumbling blue line: Overworked, demoralized French police stretched to breaking point
Picture a crowd of some 20,000 people, gathered in the streets of Paris, waving banners, lighting flares, singing La Marsellaise and blowing whistles. They boo as a group of protesters is led away by gendarmes in riot gear, presumably under arrest. Some of the demonstrators are crying.
If you thought it was another Yellow Vest protest, you’d be wrong. No, this is a “march of anger” by the French police. The marchers don’t wear yellow safety vests, and their banners and flares are blue. They are the officers, sergeants, detectives and inspectors who have had quite enough and are trying to tell the government of Emmanuel Macron “no more.”
How did it come to this?
Back in 1964, the most popular film at the French box office was the comedy ‘Troops of St. Tropez,’ featuring the bumbling gendarme whose biggest headache was a group of illegal nudists at the resort’s beaches. No doubt the comedic character of Ludovic Cruchot inspired many a Frenchman – and woman – to join the police, protect and serve.
Today, however, Cruchot would be 36 percent more likely to commit suicide than a regular Frenchman. He goes on patrol in a car that breaks down with alarming frequency, to a station that’s falling apart, where he uses obsolete computers to generate an ever-growing pile of paperwork.
“Ludovic” has been on heightened alert for potential terrorists for nearly four years after a series of terrorist attacks in Paris resulted in the deaths of 130 people, most of them at a concert in the Bataclan theatre. Imagine our Ludovic as one of the responders to that scene, witnessing the carnage left behind by Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) terrorists.
Or maybe he was in Nice – just up the Riviera from St. Tropez – on July 14, 2016 when another terrorist drove a truck into the crowd celebrating Bastille Day, killing 86 and injuring almost 500 more.
Every weekend for the past 46 weeks, Ludovic is ordered to police the demonstrations of ‘Yellow Vests,’ Frenchmen disgruntled by the government’s combination of austerity and “green” taxation imposed by the Macron government. Same grievances as his own, really, but orders are orders.
Ludovic doesn’t get to spend a weekend with his family. Instead, he has to pull mandatory overtime – and not get paid for it. French police are owed 23 million hours of back pay, at latest count, but the treasury is empty.
Angry, Ludovic shoots someone’s eye out with a rubber bullet, or breaks someone’s nose with a club. This is caught on video and goes viral. Now he is a villain to the people of France, not a hero in blue.
Every day, Ludovic takes his service weapon home. One day, he listens to his child cry as she tells of classmates taunting and bullying her for being a daughter of a cop. He sees the worried look on his wife’s face, and stares long and hard at the bottom of the empty bottle on the dining room table. Then reaches for his pistol.
Our “Ludovic” isn’t any one French police officer in particular, of course, but a composite sketch of some 50 or so who have committed suicide so far this year, according to the media and government sources. That’s one every four days, says the police union – on pace to break the grim record of 70 suicides from 1996.
“There is a deep sense of despair,” David Le Bars, secretary-general of the SCPN-Unsa police union, told AFP. That seems to be an understatement, if anything.
“We were heroes, but we’ve become zeros,” one officer told Le Parisien. Both he and his wife are on the force, and would not give their real names. They speak of long and unpredictable hours, overtime without pay, and having their three children hide the fact that their parents are police, lest they lose friends or get assaulted.
One officer from a riot police unit in northern France told AFP on Wednesday that he and his colleagues feel like the “dregs of society” at this point. Another, from Auxerre in central France, said that over the past two years, one of the members of his unit committed suicide and another one tried to do so. He pointed to the weekly ‘Yellow Vest’ protests as the final straw.
He is not alone. Every police officer interviewed by the French media – most of whom gave false names, out of fear or concern – brings up the weekly protests as the tipping point for the force already overworked, overstressed and underpaid.
It used to be that police could talk their problems over among themselves. Now, they leave at the end of the day, saying nothing, one of them told Le Parisien. “We all have our weapons. So if things don’t work out, the solution is at hand.”
“I just feel like we’re being run by pharmacists who have no idea what painkillers might be.”
While the despair has not driven the police to join the ‘Yellow Vests’ just yet, Wednesday’s strike – the first in 20 years – is supposed to send a message to Macron and his “pharmacists” that enough is enough. For our “Ludovic” and his 52 colleagues, it is already too late.
Nebojsa Malic, senior writer at RT
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