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Improving the Police-Jeunes de Banlieues Relationship in Contemporary France

“Si la seule chose qu'on nous propose, c'est de recommencer ce qui a fait faillite,
 les mêmes causes produiront les mêmes effets.”
"If the only thing we propose is to repeat is what has already failed, the same causes will produce the same effects."

--Dominique de Villepin, Interior Minister of France, November 7, 2006 

It is a sunny June afternoon as we approach the doors of the Châtelet commissariat (police station), one of the most frenetic subway stations in Paris. A lanky young man dressed in a baggy white t-shirt and jeans sullenly glares at the police officer blocking the exit, whose own youthful face is contorted with a mixture of disdain and annoyance.  
“You call me Sir when you speak to me,” the officer hisses, pressing a frayed, mottled plastic French Republic identity card forcefully into the hands of the youth. “And you be a good example of what the République should be”, he orders. 
The young man squeezes past the officer, mumbling, “Who cares about the République?” as he shoves his card into the back pocket of his jeans, just loud enough for the officer to hear. 
“If I see you again, who knows what I’m going to do to you!” The officer barks after him, shouting into the street. The echo of this threat hangs momentarily in the humid air, but the youth is already halfway down the block, striding angrily away. The officer glares at his retreating back for a few seconds more, then shakes his head slightly and stalks back into the sparse, white-walled commissariat, back to the group of colleagues who have been standing at the front desk this entire time, watching the situation unfold. 

All over Paris, scenes like this take place on an everyday basis, reflecting the reality of the current relationship between the jeunes (youth) de banlieues  and police. The French police force, notorious for its secrecy and code of silence by which its officers abide, has in recent years come under severe criticism over accusations of police brutality and racism.  In 1999, the European Court of Human Rights ordered France to compensate a convicted Dutch-Moroccan drug dealer for torture he had suffered at the hands of the police in order to extract a confession, in the case of Selmouni v. France.  Only three years later, in 2002, the ECHR censured France for police torture again, this time in the case of Mouisel v. France. . In 2005 alone, a number of organizations, both in France and abroad, published damning reports on racism in the French judicial system. In February of that year, the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance issued its Third Report on France, in which it expressed “anxiety that complaints persist concerning ill-treatment inflicted by law enforcement officials on members of minority groups” ; this was followed in April by Amnesty International’s 80-page report criticizing police brutality and endemic racism in the French criminal justice system . That same month, France’s National Commission on Ethics in the Security Services reported that nearly half of the 78 police abuse complaints made to the ethics commission in 2004 involved allegations of racist behavior . Later that year, in October and November 2005, the deaths of two banlieue youths after a police chase sparked riots in over 250 French cities, and the police force once again found itself under heavy international scrutiny for its rocky relationship with the jeunes des banlieues.  

While relations between the police and the jeunes des banlieues have been  undeniably strained for years and remain so today, it should not be assumed that the French government has done nothing to combat this problem. Rather, the real question is why these tensions have persisted despite the efforts of the government. In 1999, the French government actually created and implemented a new branch of police officers, called the Police de proximité (loosely translated as “community policing”, or “social policing” in English).  The initiative was meant to produce police officers who also served as social worker-type figures for traditionally troubled, crime-ridden areas such as the banlieues, with the hope that they would be able to prevent crime and delinquency by becoming intimately familiar with the community and its inhabitants, challenges and needs.  Knowing the people and knowing the area were the two main stipulations. As Fabien Jobard, sociologist and police expert at the National Center of Scientific Research (known as CESDIP in France) explains, assigning the same police officers to repeatedly patrol certain areas is supposed to build the local community’s trust in the judicial system. Nearly a decade after the creation of the police de proximité, however, it appears that a relationship of mistrust, fear—and even hatred, at times—is still prevalent among police officers and banlieue youth today. To understand why this has persisted despite the creation of the Police de proximité, we must first examine the history of this community policing program in France—its conception, implementation, decline, and alleged demise. 
Territoriality and Familiarity: A Brief History of the Police de Proximité
Community policing is a relatively new concept in France. According to Matthieu Zagrodski, a consultant and part-time lecturer at the Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris who has conducted comparative research on this phenomenon in Paris and Los Angeles, the approach of the French police force since World War II has revolved mainly around the idea of “controlling the crowd”.  The main priority of the police is to protect the government—from riots, protests, spies, terrorism—and most of the police force’s resources are focused towards that end. 

In the early 1980’s, escalating tensions between the police and the jeunes des banlieues, many of whom came from immigrant backgrounds, brought the issues of the banlieues into the public eye. In particular, the 1981 large-scale riots in Lyon pushed the problems of immigrant families from the sidelines of political discourse into the spotlight. Fabien Jobard, a sociologist and prominent police expert in France, attributes the rise of this “public issue” at this particular time to two trends: the increased number of births of children of immigrants to France, who grew up in the country but only acquired French nationality at the age of 18, and a widening economic gap between areas where immigrant families resided--usually on the outskirts of towns, the "banlieues"--and the rest of the country.  The French public soon realized that the police force had been too oriented towards protecting the government, at the expense of safeguarding the security of ordinary citizens and quelling discontent before it exploded into riots and demonstrations. 

In 1997, the Socialist Party came into power under Lionel Jospin.  In light of the unrest of the banlieues in the 1980’s, they began to reassess the role of the police. The Socialists pledged to divert more of the police’s resources into taking care of the country’s citizens, and spent the subsequent two years developing a pilot community policing initiative. There were to be two main differences between the existing policing model and the proposed initiative, both of which were aimed at establishing a greater degree of security and trust between the people and the police. Firstly, the community police force would be much more localized.  The general trend at the time was to have a few police cars patrolling a large area, with the nearest police car heading towards places where calls were received, but the trouble with this approach was that often the police would not be very familiar with the area to which they responded . The new model, however, would assign each car to a very specific, much smaller zone, in hopes that the community police would become more intimately familiar with their assigned neighborhoods and its inhabitants. Secondly, the party envisioned the community police force as being far more involved with the day-to-day lives of the citizens. The police would be encouraged to conduct patrols by foot rather than car, to speak to the people of their assigned areas, and to get to know them personally. Instead of merely responding to problems as they occurred, the police were to also pre-empt these problems by fostering long-term relationships with the citizens, and thereby becoming attuned to their needs.

The Socialist party launched the police de proximité in April 1999 as an experimental program in the five cities of Chateauroux, Garges-les-Gonesse, Beauvais, Les Ulis, and Nimes.  The program was then expanded to another 62 sites in September 1999. This initiative adopted five official new “modes of action”, or, principles, for this special supplemental police force. It sought to 1) produce a partnership between the police de proximité and other local actors in the designated cities, such as neighborhood councils and youth recreation centers, 2) clearly identify and demarcate certain neighborhoods for the police de proximité to patrol regularly, allowing for a visible police presence and for relationships to develop between the police and the neighborhood’s inhabitants, 3) implement greater accountability for the police, whose actions would be subject to evaluations and other monitoring mechanisms, 4) expand the skill set and versatility of the police de proximité, and 5) establish a lasting bond with the local population that would be based on dialogue and the spirit of public service.   As André Vallet, a special rapporteur, wrote in a 1999 Finance Committee report for the National Assembly, the police de proximité can be summed up as thus: territorialized, accountable, and in partnership with the people. Matthieu Zagrodski characterizes this as “problem-oriented and proactive” community policing, serving not only a responsive but also preventative function. 

Plans for further experiments in more cities were made, but in 2001, after growing public concern at a skyrocketing number of crimes in France, the Socialist government decided to quickly expand the Police de proximité to the entire country . Such a move, however, proved extremely problematic to implement. A slow but steady extension of the police de proximité through various other cities would have provided a better overall picture of how community policing works best in different areas with different concerns.  However, the sudden expansion of the Police de proximité nationwide meant re-training 120 000 officers across the country simultaneously with methods that had thus far been proven only to work in very specific cities. As a result of the immense financial and  physical strain that ensued, only the few cities that had been selected for the initial pilot program experiment had properly-trained Police de proximité forces. Elsewhere, because of the sheer lack of time, money and manpower in setting up these programs, the Police de proximité could not function as well as the Socialists had hoped, and the crime rate was not reduced. By the 2002 presidential elections, crime had become the number one priority on the political agenda. The right-wing opposition, pointing out that the Socialists had in fact not been able to lower crime rates during their time in office, won the election, and Nicolas Sarkozy became the Ministre de l’Intérieur ( Interior Minister), and as such, in command of the police force.

When the right-wing Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) party under Jacques Chirac came into power, it was generally expected that they would be much more successful than the Socialists on the issue of crime. Though the Socialists had implemented the police de proximité program as a long-term means of reducing crime and fostering good relations with the people, the lack of quick and fast results led the UMP to conclude that this model was simply not effective. During Sarkozy’s tenure as Interior Minister, a new approach to police work was implemented. Sarkozy wanted the police to be more focused on numbers and results, creating a culture du résultat whereby commissaires and policemen were pressured to fulfill an “arrestation quota” and resolve a certain number of cases every month. While there was never an official quota imposed on the police—because as Matthieu Zagrodski states such an explicit requirement would be illegal—the police were subtly coerced into making a certain number of arrests and issuing a certain amount of tickets. “For example, police officers who, say, only wrote twenty-five speeding tickets—they would be told that they didn’t do enough. Then the police would go and write sixty-five tickets and the chief would tell them, ‘That’s too much.’ So they go and write fifty tickets, and are told that that is enough. In that way, the police are pushed towards issuing certain numbers of tickets.”  In addition, the police under Sarkozy were ordered to increase their “clearance rates”, or, the percentage of crimes where the perpetrator has been arrested. In Zagrodski’s opinion, such an approach encouraged the opposite of what the police de proximité stood for—instead of taking the time to establish rapport with their assigned communities, police officers now scrambled to meet these quotas and improve their clearance rates by month’s end.  One way they could accomplish this was to divert their time from more complex cases requiring investigation, such as smuggling and prostitution rings, and go after “lesser”, nonviolent offenses. Tactics included issuing traffic tickets, busting parties and catching those in possession of drugs, and arresting undocumented immigrants—most of whom were of ethnic minority origin (France, however, does not officially recognize ethnic minorities). In particular, finding undocumented immigrants was a quick way to boost clearance rates, as the “perpetrator” is considered to be caught once the police officer has arrested the person in question. Thus, a police officer could come closer to meeting his/her quota and improve job performance relatively easily by going into a banlieue with a high concentration of immigrant families and asking to see papers certifying French nationality, and then arresting all who are unable to produce proof of their citizenship. 

Under Sarkozy’s stint as Interior Minister, the volume of complaints involving police abuse sharply increased.  Sarkozy’s public comments on the changing role of the police also made clear his intention of overturning the police de proximité ideal, and served to widen the chasm between the police and the inhabitants of the banlieues. On February 3, 2003, at a police station in Bellefontaine –a banlieue in Toulouse– Sarkozy, the Interior Minister, declared: “La police n'est pas là pour organiser des tournois sportifs, mais pour arrêter des délinquants, vous n'êtes pas des travailleurs sociaux (The police do not exist for the purpose of organizing sporting tournaments, but on arresting delinquents. You are not social workers.)”   Thus, the hallmarks of the police de proximité, territoriality and familiarity with the assigned communities, were basically abandoned. Further comments regarding the banlieues that Sarkozy made after taking over the Presidency of France, such as calling delinquents “scum” who should be “cleaned up with a power hose”, did nothing to improve the relationship between the police and the jeunes des banlieues.  

The demise of the Socialists’ police de proximité system, along with Sarkozy’s inflammatory comments and his new system which had the effect of encouraging police to go after undocumented immigrants in the banlieues, led to a swell of distrust and anger which finally boiled over in 2005.  Less than three years after Sarkozy implemented his method of policing, in October and November 2005, riots started to spread through France’s most troubled banlieues, sparked by a tragic October 27 incident in which two young banlieue teenagers were electrocuted to death while hiding from the police in an electric substation. The two boys—one of African origin and the other of Arab origin—had been returning home from a soccer game when they had been spotted by police, who ordered them to show their identification papers proving French citizenship. Not having brought these documents to the game and not wishing to be brought to the police station, they ran and hid in the substation. According to radio transcripts between the police and their commanding officer, the police who had been pursuing the boys simply gave up after seeing them enter the substation, despite the fact that it was marked with large danger signs and the fact that it would have been easy for the officers to immediately notify the electric power company, thereby saving the teenagers’ lives.   Despite these events, however, Sarkozy declared that same night that the police officers had done nothing wrong and that there would be no investigation.  Protests broke out in Clichy, the banlieue where the deaths had taken place. Two days afterwards, the police fired a tear gas canister into a mosque in Clichy after being denied entry, when two boys they had been pursuing ran into the mosque. Hundreds inside the mosque at the time were injured, but Sarkozy again refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing on the part of the police, igniting a wave of violent demonstrations that swept across three hundred towns in France over the next three weeks.  

While the ferocity of the riots and the scale of destruction that ensued may have stunned some—125 police officers were wounded in those tempestuous three weeks, and nine thousand vehicles and hundreds of buildings either damaged or destroyed —the fact that these riots happened at all comes as little surprise. The abandonment of the police de proximité ideals, the sheer lack of communication between the Police and the jeunes des banlieues, and the fomenting dissent due to Sarkozy’s hard-line policies and callous comments almost guaranteed a swelling of violence. There is also a sense amongst some politicians and human rights workers that had the police de proximité program been continued, many of these social problems may have been alleviated or avoided. “It has been a mistake to cancel the Police de proximité. They were doing a great job there,”  Mustapha Benzitouni, president of the grassroots organization Agora in Bellefontaine, was cited as saying in the press in 2005.   In the same vein, a report issued by 28 French Senators in November 2006, a year after the riots, called for the relaunch of a “true police de proximité that holds the confidence of the people and the youth.”  That same month, Dominique de Villepin, Sarkozy’s successor as Interior Minister, expressed his desires for a “police of the public”, noting that changes to the system must be made in order avoid similar incidents from happening in the future.  Yet there is still some dispute today as to the current status of the program. Some experts on the French police, as well as police officers, maintain that the Police de proximité program was never officially terminated as a policy, despite Sarkozy speaking out against it. Matthieu Zagrodski points out that a program similar to the Socialists’ police de proximité still exists in Paris, even if not in other cities. Fabien Jobard, however, contends that Police de proximité in its original, intended form had never really existed because of the mistakes of the Socialist administration in implementing it; hence, Sarkozy’s actions were more akin to “shooting down a dead man” than erasing an existing institution. 

UTEQ: A Revival of the Police de Proximité Ideals?

Regardless of what the current state of the police de proximité is today—whether it is still a program that exists in some areas of France, or merely an ideal to strive towards—there has been recognition that the damage done between the jeunes des banlieues and the police must be reversed or at least mitigated, and that the objectives of the police force must once again extend beyond accruing numbers and arresting criminals. In April 2008, an initiative for a new kind of Police de proximité was launched in the form of the Unité Territoriale de Quartier, commonly known as UTEQ. According to Pascale Dubois, commissaire divisionnaire in charge of the UTEQ’s section in Saint Denis, these officers, who volunteer to be a part of UTEQ forces, have two goals in mind: to fight crime in the banlieues, and to re-establish a relationship of trust between the local  population and police . As the Socialists had originally envisioned for the police de proximité, UTEQ officers patrol not in a car but by feet, to better facilitate communication with the people. The program has only been in place for a few months, but already, their presence has been controversial.  There are some citizens, like Cathy, a stay-at-home mother from Saint-Denis, who feel reassured by the establishment of UTEQ, remarking to the newspaper La Croix in June 2008,  “Personally, I find their presence positive; they should be even more visible than they are now.”   However, when it comes to the relationships between the actual jeunes des banlieues and the police, the deeply engrained hostility and mistrust remains a severe problem, and residents harbor little illusions about things changing for the better. Cathy notes in the same article that “There are some youths who will never accept them because they represent authority.” And when asked about his thoughts on the new initiative, one youth from the banlieue of Francs-Moisins expressed doubts that UTEQ would help him trust the police more, maintaining to the same newspaper that “They [the police] only like to flex their muscles all the time, showing off their power, and this might actually provoke the youth.”

Despite efforts to re-establish the concept of Police de proximité through the creation of the UTEQ in some areas, police-jeunes des banlieues relations in France today are still volatile at best. The second part of this paper provides personal testimonies that illustrate first-hand some of the typical views of police officers and the jeunes des banlieues,, and shed some light on why this relationship has remained fraught with tension and anger. The third part of this essay will provide recommendations for the future. 

The Banlieues as Workplace, as Home: Voices from the Fray  

Alex , 22, is 5’10, soft-spoken and calm; his youthful face is given an air of gravitas by the day-old beard on his chin. He has been in the police force for a total of six months, and is currently stationed at the Châtelet commissariat, where he performs a variety of duties ranging from patrol to traffic control and administrative work. Alex hails from Boulogne-sur-Mer in the North of France. After obtaining his baccalauréat (high school diploma), Alex decided to become a policeman because he believed in the ideals of the police force. “I’ve got principles, and I believe that there is a right and wrong. The police fight for what’s right.” He underwent training in Boulogne-sur-Mer, and was subsequently sent to Paris, a city which he was not familiar with, to begin work. When asked how he feels about living in the capital city, he replies with a rueful smile, “I feel homesick, even depressed sometimes. Many policemen feel this way because they are not originally from Paris and are not used to living and working here. That is why there are such high rates of alcoholism within the police.”  

During his six months working as an officer in one of Paris’ busiest commissariats, Alex has accumulated dozens of encounters with jeunes des banlieues, who frequently flock to the center of the city to socialize. While Alex does not think that the jeunes des banlieues are all troublemakers, he does believe that the police have unfairly received a negative reputation for cracking down on those who do cause trouble. It is not uncommon, Alex states, to see incidents in Châtelet where jeunes des banlieues  begin confrontations by provoking the police officers patrolling the area, often by yelling insults and obscenities at them.  “But if the police do anything about it, then bystanders blame the violence on the police. They do not blame the youths for starting it,” Alex says, visibly riled. “The population in general is very prejudiced against the police. Whenever they see us checking peoples’ ID’s, they become very hostile and suspicious, even though we are just doing our job.” 

While stopping and asking people to show their French ID cards may just be routine work for Alex, this seemingly simple act takes on a far more sinister meaning for the jeunes des banlieues, and indeed, for many French citizens. Technically, ID checks are conducted by police to check whether a certain individual has the proper papers to legally be in France.  Article 78-2 of the French penal code allows policemen to ask for an individual’s ID at any time, without having to provide a reason for doing so. However, the non-random, and often public, nature by which this act is carried out has led to ID checks being widely perceived as a means of police intimidation or “control”. "The police stop you and demand to see your ID if they don’t like the way you look or behave", we were told by multiple people while researching for this paper. "They will single you out in public and make a show of scrutinizing your ID, and you will have no choice but to comply. Sometimes, they will check the same person for ID as many as 3 to 5 times an hour, just to make a point". As such, it often becomes an exercise in humiliation for those who are subject to the checks. Many interviewees believed that police practice racial profiling while conducting checks, were more likely to ask Blacks, Arabs, and those who stereotypically dress and speak as jeunes des banlieues for their IDs. Understandably, this practice breeds resentment amongst the jeunes des banlieues who feel that they are constantly being targeted by the police. 

Toufik El-Ouardani has seen firsthand the effects of this resentment.  On a sunny Saturday afternoon, the tall, clean-shaven 26-year-old who was born and raised in the banlieues introduces us to the projects of Saint-Denis, standing in the middle of an empty parking lot and gesturing with one hand at the rundown apartment complexes behind him.  “This banlieue is actually not so bad compared to other ones. In places such as Clichy-sous-Bois [the banlieue where the 2005 riots first began], you will find graffiti saying ‘Fuck the Police’ everywhere,” he remarks . 

Toufik does not hesitate when asked to name the biggest problem between the youth and the police today. Without skipping a beat, he says emphatically, “The police, for sure. They abuse their powers and use aggression just because they know they can.” To Toufik and his friends, the majority of their encounters with the police have been overwhelmingly negative, colored by suspicion, humiliation, and, in many cases, violence. While walking past a group of children playing ping-pong next to the parking lot, Toufik recounts a typical story from when he was 17. He had been hanging out with some of his friends in the banlieue when some police officers walked by. Tense looks were exchanged, and when one of his friends said, “What?” to the officers, the police reacted by demanding to see the IDs of the group.  One of Toufik’s friends, a youth of Arab descent, yelled “Fuck you!” at one of the officers, and, according to his account, they ran away. Later on, as the group of friends waited at a bus stop, they quickly noticed three groups of police officers approaching them from the left, the right, and from behind. Without warning, Toufik recalled, one police officer walked wordlessly up to the friend who had shouted the obscenity, reeled back his fist, and punched him in the face. The youth was then immediately hustled away to a commissariat. When Toufik went to pick him up, what he saw shocked him. “He was handcuffed and the entire side of his face was swollen and red. They had broken a vein in his eye and there was blood in it.” Toufik also recalls the story of Pascal, a friend of French Caribbean descent who was stopped for a minor traffic infraction and hauled to a commissariat, where a police officer repeatedly slapped him in the face. At one point, the officer looked at Pascale’s clothing and noticed a Lacoste logo on his pants. “Are these real Lacoste?” The officer asked. He then reached out and ripped the pants from the seams of the pocket down. “They must not be real,” the officer taunted. “If they were, they would not have torn so easily.”  After a few hours of continued violence and threats, he was finally released. Pascal pressed charges against the police, Toufik told us, but to no avail. “This does not surprise me,” he said, resigned. “We already knew that they could do anything to us, but that nothing would happen to them.”  

This sense of helplessness that Toufik expressed with regard to the police is pervasive and has long-lasting psychological effects on people who have grown up in the banlieues, even those who have never directly gotten in trouble with the police. Jean-Marie Bagayoko, a 25-year-old journalist of African descent who works for Respect Magazine, grew up in a banlieue of Saint-Denis. Even though he has never had an altercation with the police, is no longer living in the banlieue and has a successful career in Paris, he still associates the police with intimidation, violence, and above all, fear. Jean-Marie admits to feeling an immediate, deep sense of unease every time he sees a policeman in uniform: “I get scared, even when I know that I have done nothing wrong.”  It is precisely this kind of instinctual negative reaction to the police that must be overcome, if the relationship between the police force and the banlieue youth is to ever improve. 

Institutional Explanations For the Conflict

From the testimonies of both police officers and the people of the banlieues, it becomes apparent that an “us vs. them” mentality exists on both sides, with each party blaming the other for provoking aggression. We saw some of the immediate political reasons for this hostility in the first part of this paper—Sarkozy’s method of policing, his repeated comments regarding the banlieues—but some of the deeper, underlying institutional problems behind the relationship of the police and the jeunes des banlieues deserve a closer look. Though the exact reasons for why the relationship between the police and the jeunes des banlieues is so poor will vary depending on whom you ask, there are some factors that were repeatedly identified by our interviewees as being crucial reasons for the current reality. Many of these long-term institutional factors, such as race and recruitment problems in the police, dovetail and exacerbate each other. 

Recruitment issues in the French Police Force: Age, Geography, Ethnicity and Experience. One major issue that repeatedly came up in the interviews with the police was the youthfulness, geographic and ethnic origins, and the relative inexperience of the officers who are assigned to work in the banlieues. According to 2006 statistics from the Direction de la Information (the primary Information Center in France), 95% of the country’s police force are assigned to posts in Paris or the banlieues, but 90% of these officers (such as Alex) are not originally from the capital. Mathieu Zagrodski notes that this is partially because the wage of a police officer in Paris is relatively high by provincial (but not international) standards. Zagrodski also stated that because youths growing up in Paris have many job opportunities, few of them want to become policemen, whereas for youths from other regions of the country, job opportunities are much fewer and farther in between.   Marc , a commissaire (police chief) who has been with the police for over fifteen years, echoes the words of Alex and Mathieu: “The police who are assigned to the most troubled areas are the young and inexperienced ones, who more often than not are unfamiliar with the capital city.”  As a result, Paris and the banlieues become overwhelmingly staffed with young, white police officers, many of whom used to live with their families back in their hometowns, and have never seen a black or Arab person before, let alone had any sort of meaningful interaction with people of different ethnicities. These young officers, who are not accustomed to urban life, and more specifically, the projects, wind up having to deal with situations and people they are not used to dealing with. As Catherine Wihtol de Wenden, a research director at the Center of International Studies and Research in Paris, remarked to the New York Times in 2005: "We don't have a police force that reflects our society - and this reduces its credibility…Some of these young officers who come from the French countryside and are put in the Parisian suburbs think they are in the Wild West. They are unprepared, clumsy and very afraid… That’s when mistakes happen." 

Low Morale/High Turnover Rates in the Police Force: Closely related to the problem of age and inexperience among police officers in Paris is the issue of low levels of job satisfaction. Alex stated that he and other officers hailing from the countryside of France often suffer from bouts of loneliness, homesickness and depression. Mathieu Zagrodski estimates that there are 50-70 suicides a year within the French police. The overall low morale leads to high turnover rates among the police, which becomes detrimental to the aim of having police officers establish lasting, long-term relationships with the communities that they are assigned to. Zagrodski recounts an interview with a former police chief stationed in the 18th arrondissement, one of the busiest areas in the city in terms of police activity, who told him that 65% of the staff members who had been there when he started his job had quit during his tenure.. There is no shortage of young officers from outside Paris to fill up the spots of those who rotate out, but the lack of older, experienced and invested police in the banlieues contributes to the ongoing poor relationship between communities and the officers. 

Lack of Appropriate Cultural Training:  The problem of insufficient cultural training for recruits is linked to the overall lack of ethnic diversity in the French police force. Though Alex is stationed in Paris, he received his training back in his home province, as most officers do. The majority of the recruits in his classes were white. When asked whether the content of his training focused at all on minority/diversity issues in France, and whether there had been cultural sensitivity classes, he shook his head. “Maybe in some places they have this, but it is not mandatory.” Mathieu Zagrodski confirms this: “The French are very focused on procedures. They strongly emphasize legal and administrative procedures—and indeed, it is very important that the police must know them—but police are not required to undergo sensitivity training or learn about the different cultures they may encounter in Paris.” Likewise, the April 2005 report by the French National Commission on Ethics in the Security Services also identified the lack of adequate cultural training as part of the reason for the tensions between the police and the jeunes des banlieues. . 

Discrepancies in training methods and content across the country may also explain why some inexperienced police officers end up prejudiced against certain groups of people before they even reach the capital city for duty. Alex recounted the story of his teacher, a police chief with multiple tattoos and a shaved head, who repeatedly made misogynistic and racist comments in class, calling Blacks and Arabs inferior. “Some people knew that he was crazy, but by the end of the training, half the class had gotten tattoos and shaved their heads just like him.” No one complained about the teacher’s comments and there was no discernible mechanism that would have monitored or held the police chief accountable. Zagrodski makes it a point to say that the existence of cases such as Alex’s teacher are not indicative of a systemic problem with police training and racism in France—“Police academies don’t tell their officers that they have to crack down on Blacks and Arabs”—but agrees that the lack of cultural awareness/sensitivity training in the police curriculum helps contribute to the misunderstandings that frequently occur between the officers and the jeunes des banlieues. 

Racism in the Police Force: Racism has long been identified as a problem in the French police force, which is fuelled in part by the lack of cultural training as explained in the above section, and further compounded by the lack of ethnic diversity in the police force itself. 

As mentioned in the Introduction of this paper, the 2005 report by the French National Commission on Ethics in the Security Services found that almost half of the police abuse complaints it received in 2004 stemmed from incidents with racist undertones, and international organizations such as the United Nations and the European Court of Human Rights have repeatedly expressed concerns over the persistent accusations of racism in the French police. 

From the point of view of the jeunes des banlieues, the police are definitely racist. Alex says only some policemen are racist; Zagrodski says the same, and so does Marc. But all our interviewees agreed on the fact that when racism is expressed in the police force, it is very real, explicit racism. More complicated is the issue of whether the police force attracts recruits who are already racists, or whether young officers become racist after joining the force. For Fabien Jobard, most policemen do not start off as racists—rather, they being taking on racist mindsets only after being exposed to certain situations on the job. “Policemen act differently depending on  who they are facing—it  is in this way that abuses can start to happen. For instance, policemen have the right to perform identification checks on people as often as they want, What is not legal is to check people from a certain ethnic group more often than the others. But they will often check the ID’s of those who look like they come from ethnic minority backgrounds, because experience tells them that these people are more likely to be undocumented immigrants.”    Though research on racism and the French police force is somewhat hindered by the fact that France does not officially recognize or aggregate data on ethnic minorities, a 2003 study by Renée Zauberman and René Lévy nevertheless found an “unquestionable difference” between how French nationals and aliens are treated by the police, with aliens (most of whom are of ethnic minority origin) being over-represented within the total number of people who are apprehended by the police.  This paper also cited an earlier Lévy study from 1987 that confirmed the existence of racial profiling by the French police.  And in concurrence with Jobard’s statement on how the police become racist, Zauberman and Lévy concluded in their 2003 study that racism within the French police force is mainly developed as a reaction to their experiences as officers. “People do not enter the police because they are racist; rather, they acquire racial prejudice through a process of profession socialization. In other words, the habit of judging individuals on the basis of their supposed ethnic characteristics is acquired on the job” 

Lack of Understanding Between “Cultures”, and the Concept of Honor:  One reason why relations between the police and the jeunes des banlieues are currently so poor is because of a profound lack of dialogue and understanding between the two very different “cultures”, and the inability of each side to see things from the other’s point of view. One on hand, the police officers patrolling the banlieues are, by and large, young, inexperienced and unfamiliar with Paris and the people of the banlieues. On the other hand, there are the jeunes des banlieues, many of whom have their own distinct style of speaking, witnessed instances of police brutality against family members or friends, and generally do not know about the backgrounds of the officers or the pressures that they face as members of the police force.

Without a firm understanding of how and why youth in these banlieues act the way that they do, many officers begin to develop stereotypes and erroneous beliefs about these youth. One exemplification of this problem can be found in what Zagrodski terms the “Tu/Vous” conflict: in some banlieues, it is natural and accepted for people to address each other as “Tu”, the more informal form of “You” in French, even if they do not necessarily know each other well. For some police officers coming from small towns, however, addressing a stranger by “tu” and not “vous” (the more formal form of “You”) is a sign of disrespect. Once the officers feel that the youths are deliberately disrespecting them, they are more likely to exhibit rough behavior. According to Zagrodski, jeunes des banlieues in some areas do not understand the distinction between “tu” and “vous” that some officers hold in their minds, and see the police’s behavior as bullying and unnecessarily threatening, thus justifying their pre-existing idea of the police as brutes who are out to get them.   In this way, what begins as an innocuous comment by one party to another can escalate into an aggressive conflict, and reinforce stereotypes that both sides already hold about each other.  But to complicate issues even further, some jeunes des banlieues claim that they do understand very well the difference between “tu” and “vous”, but that it is the police officers who disrespect them by addressing them as “Tu” first (hence the scene in the movie, La Haine, where Saïd, a jeune des banlieues, says about a police officer: “Il m'a meme dit monsieur et tout.”). 

Marc the commissaire also believes that many of the conflicts between the police and the jeunes des banlieues develop because they involve an element of honor, with neither side wanting to back down first when a confrontation ensues. Particularly because both the police and the jeunes des banlieues often travel in groups, there is added pressure to look tough, and “in control”, in front of one’s peers.  This pressure is exacerbated when one of the parties considers the other to be intruding on their “home turf”. For example, Marc states, the jeunes des banlieues will sometimes feel slighted when they see the police patrolling “their” areas of town. “Part of the conflict comes from territorial impulses. The youths view the police as trespassers. They think that the police are penetrating into their territory.”  Alex also sees in his everyday work the important role that honor plays in police-jeunes des banlieues interactions: “If a police officer is walking around with other members of his brigade and exchanges words with youths, he will always try to get in the last word. You don’t want your colleagues to think that you are weak or intimidated by the youth.” 

Suggestions for Change: Is the Chasm Insurmountable?

Given the above causes of tension between the police and the jeunes des banlieues, there are a number of policy changes that can be implemented to try and break the vicious, self-perpetuating cycle of stereotypes and misunderstandings that both parties are currently locked in. First and foremost, avenues of dialogue between the police and the jeunes des banlieues need to be opened up in a variety of ways, in order for both sides to familiarise themselves with each other’s points of view: 

Community Town Halls: Mathieu Zagrodski points out that in the United States and the United Kingdom, police will hold regular town hall meetings where community residents can come and express their concerns. Such a practice is not employed in France currently, but could be extremely beneficial, especially in ‘hotspot’ trouble banlieue areas where the majority of interaction between the police and the youth consists of aggressive confrontations. 

An Internship Program for Youth in the Police Force: When asked how he would improve the situation between the police and the banlieues inhabitants, Alex raised the idea of developing an internship program which would bring jeunes des banlieues (ages 10-15) to police stations, in order to teach them about the mission and minutiae of police work. The youth would shadow the police officers not only in the commissariats, but also while on patrol (where possible). This way, rapport would be established between younger members of the banlieue community and the officers who are so often seen as their oppressors.  

Mandatory Community Service for Police Trainees, in the Banlieues: While Alex’s internship program idea would expose jeunes des banlieues to the world of the police, a certain number of hours of mandatory community service for police trainees in the banlieues area (or for organizations which work to benefit the banlieues) should be implemented, in order to provide firsthand experience of life in the banlieues for future officers. 

Overhaul of the Police Training Curriculum: The training curriculum for police academies around the country should include mandatory and standardized lessons about foreign cultures, diversity in France, and the history, social codes, and current challenges of the banlieues.  

Changing the Police Recruitment System: A stronger push needs to be made to recruit officers from the banlieues and from the Paris area. Currently, there are programs such as the Cadets de la Republique, launched by Sarkozy, which partner with local schools and are geared towards identifying and tapping at-risk youth for future police work. However, even with such programs, the fact remains that the majority of patrolling officers are not from the local communities that they are assigned to. It would be extremely beneficial for the police-banlieues relationship to have more local officers return to work in the banlieues that they are familiar with.  

Raising Salary Levels for Police: Related to the need for changing the recruitment system is the need to improve salaries for the police, especially if the job is to be made more lucrative to candidates in Paris. The police in France currently make the third-lowest wages out of all the police in Europe, with only Greece and Portugal paying their forces even less. Alex makes about 1800 Euros a month, which is above the SMIC (minimum wage) of 1030 Euros in France, but is still significantly less than what a Police de proximité (or, its equivalent) would make abroad. An increase in pay would help make joining the police more attractive to the kinds of people that the force currently needs. 


- 135,000 Policiers in France (100,000 without civilians). 
- A commissaire is a police chief; a commissariat is a police station; banlieue means project.  
- 50 to 70 suicides a year in French Police staff. 
- 95% of policemen are assigned in Paris, while 90% of them are from the countryside.
- Head Police chief of France: Ministre de l’Intérieur.  
- Article 78-2 of the French penal code allows policemen to ask for an individual’s ID at anytime, without having to justify why. 
- The violence from the police has to be 1) strictly proportional to the first attack, 2) and always has to be used as a response, not as the first way to interact with people.



1) Voices from the Police Experts 
- Fabien Jobard, researcher at CNRS 
- Mathieu Zagrodzki, sociologist, specialist on Police de proximité
2) Voices from the Banlieues
- Jean-Marie Bagayoko, journalist at Respect Magazine
- Senior Fellow Toufik, French Program 2007
3) Voices from the police 
- “Alex” 

Other References: 

- Movie La Haine, by Matthieu Kassovitz 
- Respect Mag, issue number 14, article about the Police
-  Mathieu Zagrodzki, Les consequences politiques des émeutes urbaines: une comparaison France/Los Angeles. 
- Fabien Jobard, La force publique et ses usages, 2002 

http://www.signandsight.com/features/455.html - French author expresses sadness, despair, at situation in suburbs 

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HIA Program:

France France 2008


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