By Davide Basso
(EurActiv) — French opposition leaders have called for the resignation of the Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin and police chief Frédéric Veaux in a row over the police’s heavy-handed response to the riots that have swept across French cities in recent weeks.
On Friday, Socialist Party First Secretary and MP Olivier Faure called for the resignation of the “triumvirate” of Darmanin, Veaux, and Paris police prefect Laurent Nunez for seeking special treatment for police officers.
“All three are defying republican rules”, said Faure, who questioned whether “there is still a pilot at the Elysée”, and a president “still capable of guaranteeing the independence of the judiciary”.
A police officer was remanded in custody on 20 July, suspected to have beaten up a young man in early July on the fringes of the riots in Marseille.
The policeman’s colleagues responded by stopping work. Since police officers are prohibited from going on strike, some of them resorted to sick leave or “work to rule”, or went on minimum duty, in order to slow down activity.
Due to staff shortages, several police stations have had to refuse access to non-emergency users.
Initially confined to the city of Marseille and the Bouches du Rhône departement, the movement spread to other parts of France, particularly in the south of the country and the Paris region.
Police unions reported that several hundred police officers were at a standstill in the Bouches du Rhône alone, although no official figures were available.
On Thursday evening (27 July), Interior Minister Darmanin told a meeting with police unions that “fewer than 5%” of police officers had stopped work.
“Police officers are not asking for impunity, they are asking for respect” and “they are not asking to be above the law”, he added.
His comments come on the heels of those made by Frédéric Veaux, director general of the French National Police, who said in an interview with Le Parisien on Sunday (23 July) that “before a possible trial, a police officer has no place in prison”.
Rule of Law
This stance – and the lack of reaction from the executive – prompted criticism from a number of political leaders, particularly on the left.
In an interview on Monday (24 July), President Emmanuel Macron declared that “no one is above the law”, while pledging his support for the police officers who had been mobilised for months. However, Macron refused to comment on the remarks made by the head of the French national police force.
Sandra Regol, vice-president of the Ecologist group at the National Assembly, said the president merely reiterated “the obvious” and expressed concern that “senior civil servants are trampling on the principle of the independence of the judiciary”.
“We are in a situation that is not at all normal”, she explained.
Interviewed by HuffPost, the lawyer and former Socialist interior minister and prime minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, said he considered that “separation of powers” should mean that “there can be no comments on court decisions from those who exercise responsibilities at [the Interior Ministry]”.
Measures to protect the police expected
The dialogue between the interior minister and the police unions on Thursday evening was intended to calm the rising anger within the police force.
According to union leaders, the dialogue was “encouraging”.
“All we are asking is that the case be handled in a way that reflects the status of the police officer, which is not the same as that of an ordinary citizen”, said Linda Kebbab, national delegate for Unité SGP Police-FO, on Friday (28 July).
According to her, magistrates should not assess the use of weapons in the same way for the police as for ordinary citizens.
Gérald Darmanin called on police officers to “get back to work”, as the protest movement was “putting the most vulnerable in difficulty”.
According to the police unions, the minister agreed to the idea of implementing functional protection for police officers, as well as legal and family protection, and to guaranteeing the anonymity of police officers when they are implicated.
A mission by the General Inspectorate of Administration is due to submit proposals in September.