Violent uprisings are a sign of public unhappiness. They are also a sign of state failure. France is hardly a failed state, nor will it be one. But it is exhibiting symptoms associated with state failure. It is struggling to maintain practical control of its territory. It is failing to provide security to its citizens and their property. Its authority to make collective decisions has eroded, as has its monopoly on the legitimate use of force.
While it’s important to ask what has caused such despair here that French citizens wish to inflict violence upon other French citizens, it is just as important to ask why they have succeeded.
As I’ve written elsewhere, officials at first misjudged the nature of so-called Yellow Jacket protests and used the wrong security strategy. The police at first assumed the Yellow Jackets would conform to France’s customs and unwritten rules. These rules emerge from the central event of modern history: France was born in a violent revolution. The French view themselves as children of the Revolution. France does not merely tolerate street protests: It valorizes them. They are widely seen as legitimate by virtue of their existence. If a complaint is serious enough to cause so many people to get off their asses and take to the streets, it is, by definition, to be taken seriously. No one in France—and certainly not a French President—could possibly forget how sinister the lyrics of the French national anthem really are. Before the attack in Strasbourg reminded them that the police have urgent things to do, 80 percent of the French, when polled, said they supported the protesters. The number is still above 50 percent. There is an ancestral caution about the street. If you don’t respect it, you could be separated from your head.
To sense what the French really feel about the Gilets Jaunes, see how they respond when asked whether Macron should declare a State of Emergency. This too is above 50 percent. So the French support the protests, yes, of course, but they’d like the army to be called in and the protesters to be arrested without judicial oversight and detained without charge.
According to France’s unwritten rules, protesting is not only a right, but a critical aspect of what it means to be French. The state must protect and facilitate the exercise of this right. In exchange, protesters must be civilized, and they must accept the authority of the state by, for example, coordinating their protest routes with the police. Broken windows, flaming cars, looted shops, and the desecration of the Arc de Triomphe attest to the rugged contingent of Yellow Jackets who have no interest in these or any other rules. Those committing the violence are the minority, but they are numerous enough to do enormous damage: On Monday, the Bank of France slashed its fourth quarter growth forecast in half.
The casseurs, as the French call them, comprise both opportunistic vandals—men who commit violence simply because they think no one will stop them—and ideologues who seek to tear down France’s entire political and economic structure and see violence itself as purifying and exhilarating. Both are intolerable in a democratic society.
So why aren’t they all behind bars?
On December 1, the undermanned police were ambushed by 5,000 violent casseurs and left, all day, to battle in hand-to-hand combat for control of the area around the Charles de Gaulle Étoile. How could that have happened? How could they have been left without reinforcement?
The answer is that France doesn’t have enough cops, and those they have are organized inappropriately for a crisis of this nature. The protests may now fizzle out, but if they continue at this tempo, Macron will have little choice but to declare a State of Emergency and call in the army. God knows what the political consequences of that would be; it would be an unprecedented admission of political defeat. But if you would be a state, you must ensure domestic peace. That is what a state is for.
On the face of it, France has no shortage of police manpower. To maintain security in peacetime, the United Nations recommends a ratio of 2.2 policemen per 1,000 citizens. According to Eurostat’s most recent statistics, France has 3.26 police per 1,000 citizens, slightly less than Spain (3.61) and slightly more than Germany (2.97). The police have modern equipment and training. France is a leading manufacturer and exporter of high-quality police gear. Its police forces are in regular contact with their counterparts in Europe and the United States. Occasionally, they visit and train with them. So why have they been unable to control the violence?
Because the police-to-citizen ratio is misleading. First, it doesn’t tell us to what’s going on locally. (If you double the number of cops in Los Angeles, for example, that doesn’t do anything for policing in New York.) Second, the word “police” means something different in every country. Third, it doesn’t tell us how many cops France needs. Finland has fewer than half the police per capita of France, but this doesn’t mean it’s twice as lawless as France. There is obviously some relationship between the numbers, but it’s not linear.
The right questions to ask are these: “How many teams of experienced cops who are trained in crowd and riot control can France deploy? Can they deploy in many cities at the same time? How many does it need to control violence in every region of France? How fast can they get where they’re needed?”
The French police have more responsibilities than most countries’ law enforcement bodies. They’re responsible for jobs that Americans have assigned to functionally distinct, even sometimes overlapping, federal, state, county, and city bureaucracies. In France, all of these jobs are counted as “police”—including administration.
French policing, like everything in France, is centralized. There are municipal police, yes, but their forces are small: about 18,000 men and women in total. Their funding comes from local budgets, and they’re often unarmed (the decision is up to the local mayor). Since the 2015 terrorist attacks, mayors have been “strongly encouraged,” but not mandated, to arm their municipal police. If you’re the mayor of a town of 170 retirees, deep in the Auvergne, you might have to choose between sending your police to the range for gun training, sending them to a riot-control class, or fixing the potholes on Rue Oùriennesepasse. Riot control is probably not your first choice. Municipal police also lack key authorities the National Police possess, such as the ability to investigate crimes. They don’t have the manpower, equipment, or training to handle riots.
What about the Paris municipal police? The Paris Préfecture, called the PP, is funded by Paris and the smaller cities around it. Administratively, it’s under the Interior Ministry. The PP employs 45,860 people, of whom 30,000 are police (most of the others are firefighters). These are the dedicated forces for the greater Paris region—6.4 million people spread over two-thirds of the Île de France, or about 314 square miles. Washington, DC is a bit more than 68 square miles; Greater London, 607 square miles. It’s a big region.
This force is very busy. Its responsibilities include preventing traffic accidents, ensuring those who violate traffic laws are prosecuted, servicing their cars and motorcycles, and moving the Justice Department to its new location in Batignolles. They’re the city’s criminal brigade, the regional directorate of the judicial police (given France’s administrative centralization, that’s almost synonymous with being all of France’s judicial police), its information technology and fraud brigade, its narcotics brigade, and its intelligence directorate. They’ve got a central police laboratory. They teach First Aid courses for the public. Its directorate of public transportation is responsible for the security of the Paris Métro, Europe’s largest (1.5 billion riders annually). They’ve got a river brigade, as they must: Someone has to fish out people who throw themselves in the Seine and make sure no one sails up to the Palais de Justice with a bomb.
Still, as friends from New York have written to me recently, “New York City has 38,433 officers, and this wouldn’t have happened in New York.”
True. But imagine New York and Washington merged into a single city, with the nation’s cultural, tourist, and political capitals in one place—and now imagine the NYPD’s budget isn’t $5.6 billion but $1.7 billion.
The PP isn’t designed for riot control. France’s two national police forces—the Gendarmerie and the Police Nationale—are meant to handle that task.
So why can’t they handle it?
There are 105,000 men and women in the Gendarmerie, the French military police. It polices the military, domestically and overseas, and is charged with airport security, maritime port security, and combatting cybercrime. It is also chiefly responsible for policing small towns and rural areas, meaning its area of responsibility includes about 96 percent of French territory and half of France’s population. If you have a rural uprising on your hands, call the gendarmes.
But how many of them are at the ready? Only the 12,000-strong Gendarmerie Mobile is trained in crowd and riot control. The Gendarmerie Mobile is also responsible for policing military and defense missions, counterterrorism patrols, escorting high-risk convoys, and protecting high-risk sites such as the U.S. Embassy. What’s more, France is involved in major military missions abroad, including Operations Barkhane and Chammal. When French troops go overseas, gendarmes accompany them. It’s possible that no more than 5,000 experienced gendarmes with training in riot control are truly free to deploy in France, especially because one out of five are permanently stationed in France’s overseas departments and territories.
In a pinch, couldn’t the rest of the Gendarmerie be called in? They were, last Saturday, but it’s not so easy to do. Some units just can’t be used: It takes years to train a member of GIGN—the elite tactical unit—and their identities are so sensitive they can’t be photographed. You can’t waste them on a riot. And no, you can’t call up the Air Transport Gendarmerie; do you want to be the Minister who gives the order to leave civilian airports unguarded? Likewise, you can’t just call in the Nuclear Ordnance Security Gendarmerie.
What about the civilian Police Nationale? (Fans of Georges Simenon novels will recognize the Police Nationale by its former name, the Sûreté.) It’s a bigger force: 148,000. It’s under the control of the Interior Ministry and it’s charged with urban policing.
But if you look at its mission statement, you’ll see that its responsibilities are vast. They include combatting petty crime and urban violence, ensuring road safety, controlling irregular immigration, making sure no one hires illegal immigrants, fighting drugs and organized crime, solving serious economic and financial crimes, protecting the country against terrorism and other attacks on “the nation’s fundamental interests,” and maintaining public order. The Police Nationale is CHiPs, ICE, DEA, and the FBI all in one—and much more besides.
This is a massive mission, especially in a Mediterranean country of more than 65 million people in the heart of a Europe groaning under the weight of the worst global refugee crisis since World War II—a country where an unknown and serious percentage of its Muslim population is radicalized and violent, but the large majority are not (and they want to keep it that way).
The subdivisions of the Police Nationale include the Border Police, the Judicial Police, the Central Directorate of Internal Intelligence, VIP Protection, the Directorate of International Cooperation, the General Inspectorate, and the RAID counterterrorism unit. None of these jobs are unnecessary busywork. Furthermore, only one division—the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité, or CRS—is specifically trained to respond to riots. There are only 13,000 CRS.
I stress “training” because you cannot do this safely with inexperienced traffic cops who have never seen a riot before. Riot control requires teams of specialized professionals, with appropriate equipment, who train together regularly. If an inexperienced novice loses his sang-froid and kills a protester, it is, inherently, a disaster—and guaranteed to make the problem ten times worse. No liberal democracy can kill its way out of a riot, however tempting that thought might seem to a young, frightened, injured, inexperienced, overwhelmed, and undertrained cop.
Why are there so few French cops who can do this? Because there’s not enough money. The economic crisis has had a devastating effect on both of France’s national police services, particularly on the Police Nationale. Between 2005 and 2011, the government cut the police budget by 3 percent, the equivalent of 7,236 full-time employees. Between 2015 and 2018, the PP was reduced from 35,000 to 29,000. Between 2009 and 2011, 400 of Paris’s 6,400 police stations disappeared.
Meanwhile, the economic crisis caused an upsurge of every kind of crime and social malaise, including political violence. Casseurs—violent far-right, far-left, and anarchist thugs—began showing up at demonstrations determined to commit vandalism and violence to prove that the state was unable to contain them.
Then came the Syrian war, ISIS, and the refugee crisis. Boatloads of refugees—coming from every part of the destabilized world, from Afghanistan to Libya—began drowning in the Mediterranean. This unspeakable and unprecedented humanitarian crisis coincided with a wave of terrorism inspired by the Syrian jihad. More than 250 people have been killed in France, and almost 1,000 wounded, in the wave of atrocities that began when Mohamed Merah killed three French soldiers and four Jews, three of them children, in southwestern France in 2012. As many as 1,300 French citizens have inserted themselves into Syrian and Iraqi conflict zones. Several hundred, including minors, have returned. The police have been charged with combatting this threat, and the police, in particular, have been its targets. When France re-imposed its European borders, it didn’t hire a border patrol: The police were told to do the job. Counterterrorism and border control are not make-work jobs. According to the local news, 720 French law enforcement officers are now tracking the terrorist who attacked a Christmas market in Strasbourg two days ago, killing three. RAID has secured the perimeter of Strasbourg’s Neudorf quarter, where it is conducting an operation. The chief can’t say, “Let’s put this Neudorf thing on the back burner for now and re-deploy to Puy-en-Velay, because some folks out there are setting the police station on fire. Yeah, they say they won’t stop until we leave NATO and ban plastic. Let’s go.”
In 2012, the budget for the Police Nationale was raised again, but manpower still remains below 2007 levels. Policing is a skilled profession: You can’t ramp up the numbers instantly. Candidates must pass the police exam, spend 18 months at the police academy, then do their internships. It can take more than two years to put a skilled cop on the street. The salary for a police trainee in Paris is €1,318 a month (housing is included). On Monday, in response to the Gilets Jaunes’ demands, Macron announced that the SMIC—akin to the minimum wage—would be increased to €1,598.
Last summer, prompted by a rash of protests and police suicides, two Senators from France’s Les Républicains conducted an inquiry into the state of France’s security forces. Anyone who read their report would be unsurprised that the police have been unable to control a national uprising. The police, they concluded, were “at a crisis point.” The Senators called on the President to act quickly, warning that they were “on the verge of implosion.”
Witnesses, in sworn testimony, repeatedly called the dire condition of the police “unprecedented,” noting the “shocking” lack of investment in equipment, the old and substandard police buildings, the aged vehicles. (The average age of a police vehicle is almost eight years old; this is supposed to be the maximum age for a law-enforcement vehicle.) The security forces, they said, lacked basic supplies. “Equipment and premises are degraded,” one said, “the pace of work unstructured, and the personal life of the agents is often affected.” Two-thirds of the force’s working hours were devoted to administrative and judicial proceedings, rather than policing. The suicide rate among members of the force was 36 percent higher than the national average.
Police delegates told the Senate that they felt they had been committed to serve impossible political aims. In Calais, the police had been told to “make sure the migrants aren’t visible anymore.” The result, in the field, was that “these police have the impression, day after day, that they are being asked to empty the sea with a teaspoon.” As one delegate testified:
It is clear that the security forces, faced with migrants, whether under the Paris Métro or in Calais, have been left to their own devices for lack of firm or clear instructions. This task is particularly difficult because it goes against the normal protection missions assumed by the Police and the Gendarmerie. In France, these migrants are the most vulnerable people. Today, however, [the police’s] essential role of protection is largely overshadowed by calls for repression, following the instructions of the Interior Minister to ensure these people don’t settle anywhere.
The report stressed that police were intensely frustrated by the sense that they were working at cross purposes with the judiciary. They arrested criminals, at great risk, only to see them back on the streets within days. The judiciary released them, they felt, with no real understanding of the threat they posed. (France’s prison system is one of Europe’s most overcrowded.) The public, they complained, didn’t respect the work they did. Like cops everywhere, they had come to live in fear of a viral video clip, taken out of context, that would cost them their jobs. (The French police do have a reputation for starring in videos that no amount of context could put right: another serious problem.)
These complaints are typical of police around the world, but unusually acute in France. Part of the problem is a historic estrangement between France and its police that may be traced back to Napoleon, who used the Gendarmerie as agents of the Mission Civilatrice. The imperial conquest began with what we now call France, large areas of which were considered backward and insufficiently subordinated to central rule. The avid collaboration between the police and the Nazis, as well as the 1961 Paris massacre, further diminished the public’s trust.
The Senate report is a political document. But its findings have been corroborated by police and politicians across the spectrum, and as we’ve recently been seeing, the witnesses were correct. Between 2009 and 2015, police injuries on mission increased by 29 percent. Last June, the General Inspectorate found that the use of service weapons had risen by 54 percent in the past year. These are harbingers of dangerous burnout. Recently, the Benalla Affair further eroded police morale.
One of the Senators who called for the investigation, François Grosdidier, warned in September that France was “running the risk of seeing the security services becoming inoperable. Many of [its employees] are at the breaking point. The police are being forced to operate with fewer resources in the face of ever more violent threats.”
This is why, on December 1, they were unable to reinforce the police at the Étoile and prevent the desecration of the Arc de Triomphe. There weren’t enough cops. Only a third of the forces France counts as “police” were deployed: 65,000 officers. That’s close to the limit of how many could be. Last Saturday, they deployed 89,000. That’s the limit. Few among them have extensive training in crowd and riot control, and most have never done it before. This is not enough to cope with a national, violent, and leaderless insurrection, organized on social media, taking place over all of France and its territories overseas. The Yellow Jackets communicate on small, decentralized Facebook pages. They can make plans quickly and adapt to local circumstances; they are not constrained by the demands of hierarchy or the law. The police are under the command of two massive, competing, rigidly hierarchical bureaucracies—the Interior Ministry and the military. Both must follow the law and respond to politicians’ demands.
France doesn’t have the police manpower to quell an ongoing domestic insurrection. Why would it? Who needs that in a democracy? No one needs to have an insurrection: France just had an election. It will have another soon. The point of being a democracy is that you don’t need to seize power by force, so why would France be prepared for something that never happens?
The French police have been coping with this now for four weekends straight. They are exhausted. John Lichfield of the Local reported that, even before the riots, the police were owed one million hours of overtime. The police unions have been begging Macron to declare a state of emergency and call in the army.
There’s no obvious way to end this. If the protests don’t fizzle out by themselves, no one knows what to do. You can’t negotiate with the Yellow Jackets, because they have no leader. Macron has met all of their demands he could possibly meet. There’s no way to meet the rest, because they’re incoherent and contradictory. The jackals are waiting in the wings: Mélenchon and Le Pen have been egging the protests on. Even as Macron’s Interior Minister asked “reasonable” people to stay home last Saturday, trade unions loyal to Mélenchon offered to bus them into Paris. The heads of both extremist parties—which together took nearly 40 percent of the votes in the last presidential election—are calling for parliament to be dissolved. Neither have calculated the disaster that would come upon them were the other to win an election. When these people spot a chance to grasp the golden ring, they just lose their minds.
It seems to me that the police unions are right. State failure is not an option. If this continues, Macron will have to declare a State of Emergency and call in the army. It’s the only way to give these exhausted cops a chance to recover. They’re just too tired.
So far, incredibly, the police haven’t killed a single protester. But if this continues, they’re going to screw up—or mutiny.
Many of the protesters are peaceful. Many have legitimate complaints. But enough of the protesters are violent enough to do tremendous harm. The French Finance Minister has described the economic effects of the protests as “a catastrophe.” People here will be poorer because of them. Their lives will be more fearful and insecure.
Some of the violent protesters are just thugs. But a cohort are determined ideological enemies of the French Republic. Among them are outright fascists who cannot wait to kill the Jews and committed communists who slobber openly at the thought of killing cops.
The President of the United States is confused. He thinks the French people have risen up against the Paris Climate Accord. He believes people on the streets here are chanting, “We want Trump.” The French Foreign Minister has replied by asking Trump to stay out of French politics.
The overworked French security services are looking into Russia’s role in this unrest. A cursory glance at social media suggests it is playing its usual role: If there’s a fire in the West, the Kremlin shows up to spray kerosene. A cohort of idiotic Americans have joined the Kremlin’s pyromania: The Gilets Jaunes are objects of a virulent propaganda campaign from the Kremlin and the American alt-right. The Kremlin has an intelligible strategy: divide and conquer. What the alt-right thinks it’s doing is beyond me. Our far-left is fantasizing into existence cheery French revolutionaries seizing power from the capitalist octopus. They’re wrong.
No one here really cares what Trump tweets. He’s obviously an old gaga. But Americans who still support him should know that no one in Paris, but no one, is chanting “We want Trump.” Communist and fascists alike hate Trump because he is the American President and they hate America. That’s baked into the ideological cake. They feel the same way about our homegrown alt-right nitwits. Bannon and his army of incels are egging on people who like it when Americans die. That’s idiotic. Nor are the Gilet Jaunes saying, “We want Trump.” To the extent their demands are coherent, pulling out of NATO is high on the list. Why would Americans think it a good idea to encourage people who detest them? This isn’t a game. They’re pissing on the graves of the 766,000 American men who died in the Atlantic theater to liberate Europe.
Meanwhile, our allies in France—including France’s elected government—cannot but feel contempt for Trump. As for Americans who dabble in keyboard insurgencies, well, if they want a revolution in France so badly, they should come here in person, like men, and tell it to the cops.