France’s Police Unions Are Mobilizing to Defend Their Impunity

The police killing of a 17-year-old in a Paris suburb has sparked a revolt against state violence across France. But powerful police unions have closed ranks behind the killer, in a backlash that shows French cops’ refusal to accept even basic accountability.

French riot police officers stand guard next to a burned-out trash bin during a demonstration against police in Marseille, southern France on July 1, 2023. (Clement Mahoudeau / AFP via Getty Images)

This Tuesday, Nahel, a seventeen-year-old of Franco-Algerian origin, was shot and killed by a police officer during a traffic stop in the Paris suburb of Nanterre. The young man’s death — and footage of the scene that looks to many like an execution — has set off a powder keg nationwide. For the last few days, major urban areas and small regional cities alike have seen a wave of protests, rioting, and looting. Many commentators are comparing the events to the 2005 uprising that followed the death of two men of color as they were chased by police north of Paris. On Thursday, thousands attended a march in Nanterre alongside Nahel’s family and anti–police violence activists. As of Saturday, upward of two thousand people have been arrested, with hundreds of police officers injured in the clashes.

Kicked off by Nahel’s killing, this has morphed into a revolt against policing and its role in the broader exclusion faced by minorities in France. It’s feeding off the accumulated experience of many forms of harassment and daily violence by the police, from cheap verbal abuse (of which just about everyone I spoke to at Thursday’s march seemed to have a story) to the industrialized use of minor-offense fines against working-class communities of color. France’s strict laws regulating statistics make it very difficult to collect concrete information on the effects of racism. But a 2017 report from France’s Rights Defender, a public watchdog, suggests that young men perceived as black or Arab are twenty times more likely to be stopped for an ID check than French people perceived as white.

These are the facts. Yet it’s difficult to get past the impression that France is woefully ill-equipped for confronting the death of a young man like Nahel — or the unavoidably political meaning of the revolt that has resulted from it.

Quick to condemn the actions of the officers caught on videotape in the hope of calming tensions, Emmanuel Macron and his government have just as rapidly acceded to the Right’s calls for swift clampdown. Upward of forty-five thousand police officers were deployed across France on the night of June 30 to July 1, and the interior ministry is starting to deploy forces trained to engage with anti-terrorist interventions. Some of these units have been seen wielding live-action weapons like shotguns.

The government has so far resisted these calls, but Marine Le Pen is calling for a nationwide state of emergency. This would effectively ban protests and gatherings and authorize measures like curfews, stay-at-home orders, and special detentions of individuals. In certain suburbs, curfews have already been put in place, while parts of the transport network in the Paris area have been closed earlier in the evening than usual.

There’s nothing surprising about intolerance for rioting, of course. But what’s revealing is the speed with which a social revolt has been buried beneath the trappings and rhetoric of another right-wing civilizational battle. Macron has spoken of the nefarious effects of violent video games.

There’s also a second force at play: France’s powerful and restless police unions, who have turned this crisis into a test of loyalty for Macron and his government. After footage of Nahel’s killing contradicted initial claims of self-defense by the officer who fired the lethal shot, police unions were up in arms over the critical statements coming from Macron and his ministers.

“Our colleague was strung up to the whipping post in order to buy peace and calm rioters who are attacking the republic,” Davido Reverdy of the National Police Alliance union told Le Monde. He also criticized the fact that the officer was detained, and the announcement by prosecutors that he had been placed under investigation for homicide.

But this dissent radically escalated on June 30. On the eve of the fourth night of action, the National Police Alliance and the National Union of Autonomous Trade Unions (UNSA) released an inflammatory press statement threatening the “wild hordes” and “pests” taking to the streets — and an unconcealed warning to government officials.

“All means need to be deployed to restore the rule of law as quickly as possible,” the two unions declare:

National Police Alliance and UNSA Police assume their responsibilities and want to alert the Government that once this is behind us, we will be mobilized and that without concrete measures of legal protection for the Police Officer, an appropriate penal response, and consequential resources, Police Officers will be the judge of the level of consideration that ought to be given in return.”

Some elements of this are very cryptic — others less so. “Today, the police are engaged in combat because we are at war,” the communiqué concludes. “Tomorrow, we’ll be in resistance and the government needs to be aware of that.”

Are the police unions demanding that the government bury any criminal charges against the officer who shot Nahel? Are they claiming the right to use forms of lethal force beyond the tear gas, rubber bullets, and other forms of officially nonlethal dissuasion usually deployed?

The two organizations have walked back on their claims, suggesting that it has been blown out of proportion, but critics on the Left have read in this bombastic message a shot at the justice system and France’s elected government. But for now, Macron and Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin have sought to downplay it all, dependent as they are on these forces to get through the coming days and weeks. “I’m not here to squabble,” Darmanin said on TF1 in response to a question about the open letter. “These are not my words.”

But these are not the isolated ramblings of a fringe faction within the police ranks. Union elections held in late 2022 had the bloc formed between the National Police Alliance and UNSA Police emerging as leading representatives of a profession that boasts a massive, 90 percent unionization rate.

And neither is it the first example of police restlessness. In May 2021, France’s police unions organized a large rally in front of the National Assembly in Paris, demanding more resources for the police forces and an end to what they deemed the laxity of the justice system. “The police’s problem is with the justice system,” said National Police Alliance secretary Fabien Vanhemelryck before the thousands of officers and supporters at the rally. During the 2022 election season, the unions were behind a push to consecrate a presumption of “legitimate self-defense” for officers who make use of force. When Macron deigned to speak of the problem of racism and violence in French policing in late 2020, they called for a boycott of ID checks and searches.

Part of what’s driving today’s revolt is the outsized role that the police forces have acquired in French life. This addiction took root well before the current presidency, but Macron has come to depend on it more than perhaps any of his predecessors. And the horrifying irony now is that he’s falling back on forces openly calling to warp the separation of powers and act over the heads of elected officials. All in the name of “republican order.”