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Hundreds of police officers converged on the National Assembly in central Paris on Wednesday to protest an ever-increasing workload, outdated equipment and rules restricting their ability to defend themselves.
The protest follows almost 10 days of nightly demonstrations in cities across France, spontaneously organised on social media by officers who view both the government and the police hierarchy as “out of touch”.
At the end of the day’s protest, the government promised an extra €250 million, and a review of officers’ rights to defend themselves when under attack.
Earlier, a small group of protesting officers, off duty from their normal beat in Versailles, told FRANCE 24 they were “at the end of their tether” after “decades of neglect by changing governments that have eroded our ability to function properly in a job we love”.
“We work in filthy, run-down police stations, we have to provide much of our own equipment – business cards and even pens. We don’t have up-to-date communications or radio equipment and we are expected to rely almost completely on our private mobile phones,” said Alexandre Langlois, standing in the crowd of some 600 off-duty officers on the Pont de la Concorde outside the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament.
“Above all, we are restricted in what we are allowed to do to defend ourselves when we are under attack,” he said.
The wave of protests that began 10 days ago was sparked by an attack on four officers by a gang armed with Molotov cocktails. Two officers were seriously wounded, and one of them remains in a serious condition in hospital.
Langois’ colleague Nicolas explained that under their rules of engagement – identical to civilian rules governing self-defence – the officer had “probably been too afraid to use his weapon”.
“It’s what you would call a Catch-22,” he said. “When someone is holding a petrol bomb and is ready to throw it, if you use your weapon you are in big trouble. If the petrol bomb lands on you before you before you can use your weapon, you are also in big trouble because you are being burned. So what’s the point of being armed?”
“I have never once used my sidearm in my 10 years on the job, and I hope I never have to,” he added, to vigorous agreement from his colleagues standing on either side of him.
“I don’t want to have the kinds of powers officers have in the US – none of us do. But we serve to protect the public. We need to feel that we too are protected, and that we can protect ourselves.”
Not about the money
Jessy, part of the group gathered on Pont de la Concorde amid some 600 fellow officers, insisted their protest was “not about money; we don’t want a euro more”.
“But I shouldn’t be expected to have to buy my own bullet-proof vest, which I have done, and as a keeper of the peace I should be allowed to protect myself,” he said.
They also insisted that their protest was non-political. The small group of Versailles officers jeered at the few politicians, mostly representing the conservative opposition Les Républicains and far-right National Front parties, milling around with the protesting officers and lining up to speak to journalists covering the event.
Several of these politicians – conspicuous in the red, white and blue sashes that French officials sometimes wear – denied that they were there to gain political capital, with Les Républicains deputy Laure de la Raudière saying she had joined the protests simply to “show my support”. They chimed in enthusiastically as officers sang the Marseilleise national anthem.
Government to speak with unions
The protesting officers were also proud that their protest movement, organised almost entirely on social media, did not have the backing of their trade unions until this week.
“Officers here are fed up with the inactivity of their unions,” Police Brigadier Sébastien Jallamion told FRANCE 24. “The legitimacy of the grievances is all ours.”
Nevertheless, it will be the police unions – who belatedly called for members to join Wednesday’s protest – who will be received by the government this evening.
Late on Wednesday, the protesting officers were vindicated when Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve announced that the police would receive an extra €250 million in funding for updated equipment, and promised an inquiry into police officers’ rights to self defence.
The announcement was hailed by unions as “very significant”, but warned that “concrete measures will have to be made quickly”.
A poll published Wednesday by French daily Le Figaro showed that 90% of French citizens support the police protests.