It is any given Saturday in the late 2010s and the several-hundred-person crowd has been brought to a halt along the boulevard. Fully clad officers of the gendarmerie mobile or the infamous CRS crowd control force lock shields to engulf the protesters, whose chants of “Macron, resign!” fade into “Everyone hates the police.” Without warning — despite the official requirement that riot police announce the imminent use of force — a hail of tear gas grenades land amid the throng of demonstrators. The crowd scatters, scoping out for a potential exit point amid the web of riot shields, while a few emboldened stragglers brave the stinging fumes.
For critics and admirers alike, scenes like these are examples of the French model of “preserving order.” It might seem an exaggeration to identify any particularly Gallic logic in the use of state force to break up a popular demonstration. Yet Emmanuel Macron’s ostensibly liberal government has drawn robust criticism from an array of international organizations for the way that it has clamped down on the protest movements that have dotted the political calendar in recent years.
At the peak of the gilets jaunes movement over late 2018 and 2019, the European Council warned the government about the danger — and potential illegality — of the rubber bullets deployed, which mutilated scores of protesters. In a rare denunciation of a Western democracy, Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations high commissioner on human rights, issued a pointed call to the French government to resort to social dialogue instead of rubber bullets and tear gas.
Since that point, large demonstrations have been thinner on the ground — a symptom both of the political effects of the pandemic and of the memory of the real risks of taking to the streets. But the French government’s own watchdog is still sounding the alarm. On November 29, the Défenseur des droits (DDD), a civil liberties authority whose director is appointed by the president, published a report on the police’s tactics for controlling large crowds and protests. “French [institutional] actors’ way of envisaging protesters seems to be heavily marked by a confrontational frame,” the DDD regretted, in the characteristically tempered language of a public ombudsman.
This latest report built on and summarized the conclusions of an independent commission that published its findings in July 2021. Comparing French crowd control tactics with those deployed by other European states, the sociologists and political scientists who produced the dossier remarked that, in recent years, it has become common practice for French police forces to “consider the mob as a violent element by nature.”
The drafting of a “Schéma national de maintien de l’ordre” (National Protocol for Maintaining Order, SNMO), the Interior Ministry’s codification of the protocol for policing large crowds, was meant to respond to this chorus of criticism. The process was initiated by Christophe Castaner, interior minister between 2018 and 2020, the period that saw the high-water mark of the popular movements that characterized the pre-pandemic phase of Macron’s presidency.
Yet if this was undoubtedly a feint nod toward calls for de-escalation, the results of the SNMO have been deceiving. Published in September 2020, the initial version fell far short of the hopes held by civil liberties and free speech advocates. Formulated entirely within the Interior Ministry hierarchy, the SNMO was thus sealed off from the public debate kicked off when scenes of excessive police force against protesters momentarily set the news cycle. But even though the document faced pushback, a new version released on December 16 isn’t much better — normalizing the increasingly repressive measures police have already taken up in practice.
Indeed, the SNMO is as much a product of police unions’ own intense mobilization as it is a government response to a national debate on police violence. Even before the country’s strict COVID-related lockdowns from March 2020, police forces were exhausted, stretching overtime hours to respond to the feverish pace of protests and accruing a backlog of lapsed pay. A controversial “global security” bill introduced in late 2020, weeks after the initial draft of the SNMO, sought, among other things, to penalize the filming of police officers with the intent to cause them harm. Staunchly criticized by civil liberties advocates, this rule was censured by the Constitutional Council in May 2021.
That same month, weeks before the judiciary issued its first challenge to SNMO protocols, thousands of French police officers held a rally outside the National Assembly. Criticizing work conditions, the legal system’s supposed laxism, and the media’s ostensible embrace of the theme of police violence, the police officers in attendance spoke out against what they considered a general lack of public recognition (a strange grievance to hear at an event dutifully attended by leading figures of every major national party, except Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Insoumise).
It is therefore none too surprising that beneath the veneer of due diligence and self-scrutiny, the SNMO largely validated the range of repressive tactics that the police had developed from the mid-2010s. Rubber bullets, flash grenades, the deployment of more aggressive units such as squadrons of motorcycle-mounted troopers, new legal tactics such as the immediate arraignment and trial of protesters suspected of planning to commit violence: the “French model” was finally codified as government policy.
In a June 2021 decision, France’s highest administrative court, the State Council, condemned the first rendition of the SNMO. While validating the broader architecture of the document, the judges threw out the text’s prohibitive articles concerning the rights of journalists at protests, including requirements that journalists clearly identity themselves, wear protective material, and leave the area as soon as the order to disperse has been delivered. La nasse, or kettling — a tactic whereby squadrons of riot police encircle and entrap a crowd of protesters while barring people from escaping — was also censured by the court: a setback, at least on paper, for the Interior Ministry.
Rereleased on December 16, the slightly amended second version of the SNMO was supposed to integrate the court’s concerns over press liberties and freedom of expression. The few tactful retreats granted by the Interior Ministry mostly concern the rights of journalists, who will no longer be required to leave the site of a protest and will face slightly loosened accreditation requirements to observe and move amid and behind police forces. These tweaks, alongside cosmetic adjustments to the tactic of kettling, belie the spirit of a text that still seeks to normalize the repressive tactics that have been developed over the last half decade, as French police forces have had to adapt to a renewed era of social protest and mobilization.
“It’s a shame,” commented Anne-Sophie Simpere of Amnesty International France. “This new protocol could have been a way to start from a clean slate, to get to the root causes of the fact that the way we manage protests has resulted in the injury of thousands of people. . . . The first SNMO largely validated the tactics developed over the winter of 2018 and 2019, and these revisions really don’t change much.”
Official protocols are one thing. On the ground, the actual practice of policing depends more on the way that police officers feel authorized to act. The French police’s sense of license has been turbocharged by a communications campaign against so-called casseurs, literally “breakers,” supposed bands of violent nihilists that infiltrate demonstrations to spar with police and vandalize chain stores. The gilets jaunes are “accomplices,” Castaner warned in a video released on social media on January 11, 2019, the day before a new round of demonstrations by the yellow-vested protesters.
It is telling that such an unscientific term as casseur is employed without quotation marks in the latest version of the SNMO, as if it were a serious way to explain the escalating tensions at public demonstrations. The casseur is another word for the perfectly lawless enemy — a straw man that justifies granting the police a maximum range of tactical operability.
That the latest SNMO leaves such a large margin of maneuver and interpretation to those charged with “preserving order” worries civil liberties advocates, who fear that little will change in the culture of French policing.
For example, the latest SNMO elegantly skirts the State Council’s ban on the kettling of protesters. “In order to avoid the use of law enforcement techniques that could present even greater risks of harms to persons,” the document reads, “it may be necessary to surround a group of demonstrators to prevent and put an end to serious and imminent violence against persons and property.”
If it sounds like the Interior Ministry is flouting the State Council, the document clarifies that a “controlled exit point” will be provided for, and that the entrapment can only be used during a “strictly defined and necessary period of time.” Likewise, police officers are encouraged to “regularly communicate” with the entrapped protesters so as to “inform them about the situation.” Unsurprisingly, the section concludes by handing a blank check to police officers: “The possibility offered to [demonstrators] to leave the enclosed area must constantly be reassessed with discernment in view of the persistence of the threat or the disturbances which justified the implementation of this technique.”
“Everything is angled toward the usage of force. Protests are presented as a risk,” Simpere told Jacobin. “The police also have the responsibility to facilitate protests, to ensure the safety of demonstrators. This positive role has been entirely marginalized. Obviously, ‘preserving order’ is an aspect of any protest. But to make it as central as it is today, in the context of major tensions between the police forces and demonstrators, is not what we needed.”
Indeed, leaving aside the finer points of police protocol, the most worrying thing is the philosophy underlying the new SNMO from start to finish. Tear gas grenades, eye-gouging rubber bullets, the deployment of new technologies such as drones, the immediate arrest of suspect individuals, entrapment of protesters in order to incite violence and thereby justify a forced breakup of the demonstration . . . for an emboldened Interior Ministry, the massive arsenal of weaponry and the aggressive new tactics that the French police apparatus has accrued over recent years simply aren’t the problem.
According to the authors, it is the presence of “revolutionary and seditious elements” and “well-organized, ultraviolent individuals” that “seriously question the freedom to demonstrate and the ability to guarantee it.” In the upside down world presented by the SNMO, it is protesters themselves who present the greatest threat to the right to protest.