France’s Illiberal Turn Has Emboldened Its Right-Wing Police

On June 27, French police murdered Nahel Merzouk, a 17-year-old boy of Algerian and Moroccan descent. Rather than treating the incident as an opportunity for introspection, French police have rebelled against all attempts to be held accountable.

French police officers stand at the entrance of a courtroom in Aix-en-Provence on August 3, 2023, during an appeal on the pretrial detention lodged by a police officer suspected of having beaten up a twenty-two-year-old man on the night of July 1 to 2 in Marseille. (Clement Mahoudeau / AFP via Getty Images)

What if the state of the French police is but a reflection of the profound malaise engulfing the rule of law in the country as a whole? Just over a month after the death of Nahel Merzouk, a seventeen-year-old boy shot down by the police, France now confronts seditious inclinations within its law enforcement ranks.

The increasing prevalence of protests across France in recent years has emboldened the country’s police. This is because their ability to ensure law and order is the basis on which parties from the center and Right have sought to legitimize themselves to the conservative sections of the electorate. French police have thus felt able to assert themselves, rebel, and seek to operate outside the boundaries of the law.

On July 24, the director-general of the National Police (DGPN) stated publicly that he opposed the idea of placing a police officer in pretrial detention — a stance endorsed by the prefect of police in Paris and validated by the Ministry of the Interior itself, which found no fault in the DGPN’s remarks. Within the French political landscape, the right wing rejoices at the country’s drift toward authoritarianism: Senator Valérie Boyer of Les Républicains believes that prisons should be reserved for those who pose a threat to society, thus concluding that the guardians of law cannot, by definition, be arrested for misconduct. Meanwhile, some officers resort to sick leave as a form of protest and have even organized demonstrations outside the home of a judge who ordered pretrial detention for one of their colleagues. How did it come to this?

Three years ago, through the “global security” law, French police gained the right to carry their firearms off duty, even in public spaces. The decision indicated the political establishment’s complete and unflinching loyalty to the police force, solidified by the series of terrorist attacks that have struck France in the last decade — Charlie Hebdo, the Paris and Nice attacks, among others.

Although the center and Right have embraced the institution of the police, the Left has been less willing to do so. The Left condemns police killings and racism and calls for profound reform, while the Right denies police violence and insists that since the police are “republican,” accusations of racism are baseless (the invocation of republicanism is a common tactic with which French chauvinists dismiss their country’s racism).

The controversial Article 24 — struck down by the Constitutional Council — sought to prohibit the filming of police officers, a right long established by American jurisprudence, which views it as integral to the very core of the First Amendment: a right deemed essential both for holding government officials accountable and for safeguarding against abuses of power.

Fiercely defended by the current administration, the police know that they can push the limits and assert their will through force. The government, facing growing moments of public distrust (the Yellow Vest movement, pension reform protests, suburban riots), cannot afford to be without them. However, when trust is so strong that even the fundamental principles of the rule of law can be questioned without any reaction from the executive, does it not provide evidence that the French republic is tilting toward an increasingly authoritarian regime, showing less and less regard for fundamental liberties?

In May, the Hérault prefecture took down a banner adorned with the acronym ACAB, All Cops Are Bastards, boasting a “zero tolerance” policy for “hate speech” directed at law enforcement. The interpretation of ACAB as hate speech rather than a critique of the police as an institution raises questions, especially in a country that embraces “liberty” in its motto. In 2020, the police union Alliance demonstrated its profound respect for freedom of expression when it filed a complaint against singer Camélia Jordana. The reason for the legal action was that Jordana had the audacity to say publicly what many thought privately, that “thousands of people do not feel safe in the presence of a cop, and I am one of them.”

The ban on criticizing the police is causing ripples even in the realm of freedom of association: since the enactment of the “act reinforcing the principles of the republic,” associations seeking public subsidies must now sign a binding “contract” committing them to uphold the “values of the republic.” The determination of what constitutes these “republican values” appears to rest entirely within the executive’s discretion: recently, Minister of the Interior Gérald Darmanin asserted that the Human Rights League, a century-old association, wrongly labeled France as a “police state.” Consequently, its public subsidies could now be subject to reconsideration. The precedent this sets, according to which public funding is reserved for associations that refrain from criticizing the government, is deeply worrying.

This unprecedented succession of events has raised concerns among numerous international organizations: last month, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights urged France to address “deep issues of racism and discrimination in law enforcement.” Amnesty International, on its part, highlighted numerous instances of racial and religious discrimination and the excessive use of force by the police. These concerns were swiftly dismissed by France, which deemed all such accusations as “groundless.” For the “Land of Enlightenment,” there can be no systemic racism within its police forces, regardless of the fact that these forces overwhelmingly vote for the far right.

Amid the aftermath of the tragic death of Nahel Merzouk, French president Emmanuel Macron is now contemplating an extraordinary measure — “shutting down” social media during riots — in response to violent unrest. This move, if implemented, would place France alongside undemocratic nations like China, Russia, and Belarus, prompting apprehensions about the state of democracy in the country. The president had pledged to “appease” the nation within a one-hundred-day timeframe following massive demonstrations against pension reform. However, instead of fostering a climate of peace, each passing day appears to be eroding the very foundations of democracy and republicanism.

The words of US Supreme Court justice William Brennan in the 1987 case of City of Houston v. Hill resonate powerfully in this context: “The freedom of individuals verbally to oppose or challenge police action without thereby risking arrest is one of the principal characteristics by which we distinguish a free nation from a police state.” France should give serious consideration to the potential implications of its illiberal drift. Preserving the rights of citizens to voice their dissent without undue repression is essential to upholding the values of a truly democratic society.