PARIS — An explosive new book by an investigative journalist has drawn fresh attention to police brutality and racism in France, after protests against the deaths of Black people at the hands of American law enforcement swept across the world.
Valentin Gendrot’s book “Flic,” meaning cop, chronicles the author’s training and the six months he spent as a police officer in one of Paris’ poorest districts. Gendrot says he watched police demean, brutalize and racially profile young men of mostly Arab and African descent.
The shocking details in Gendrot’s book will come as no surprise to the mostly immigrant residents of the French capital’s poor, urban neighborhoods.
But the book arrives after a summer that saw thousands join protests across France inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, and its vivid portrayal underlines how France’s history of racism and present-day police tactics have remained relatively unexamined
Gendrot told NBC News that his former police colleagues often expressed admiration for their U.S. counterparts.
“Seen from France, [American police] are a strong police,” Gendrot said in an interview in the city’s 18th Arrondissement, or neighborhood, next to the gritty 19th Arrondisement where he served as an officer. “It’s a police force where you can do whatever you want. It’s a police force where we are not really going to bother you when we have to go and chase someone.”
Even though French police use their firearms much less frequently, their use of identification checks — comparable to the controversial stop-and-frisk tactics used in some American cities — is often abused, according to human rights groups.
“I think in many parts of the United States because of strategic litigation, because of human rights battles, there are more rules in place to at least try to constrain the ability of police to stop somebody without reasonable suspicion,” said Judith Sunderland, the acting deputy director for the New York-based Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division, who authored a report this summer on racism and abuse in French police.
“Whereas in France, the law is actually very permissive and allows the police to stop people without any grounds whatsoever which, of course, leaves a lot of room for arbitrary, discriminatory decisions,” she said.
It was not until 2016 that French police incorporated rules against racial profiling in their official code of ethics, Sunderland said. But the code of ethics does not carry the force of law. Human Rights Watch reported last summer that multiple legislative bills intended to restrict racial profiling by police have been rejected by France’s National Assembly.
Gendrot was careful to say that only a minority of his former colleagues engaged in outward racism and brutality. But he said such behavior often went unpunished. Intimidation by fellow officers made it difficult to report abuses, he said.
French police have not publicly addressed any of the allegations in Gendrot’s book, but the Police Prefecture, the government department responsible for policing in the city, has asked the Paris prosecutor’s office to open an investigation into his claims.
The French Ministry of Interior did not respond to requests for a comment, but a representative for the French police union rejected the criticisms made against the policing tactics.
“You have a story, especially with segregation. That’s not what we have experienced in France. Therefore, [it] is less anchored in French society,” Stanislaus Gaudon, the general administrative secretary of Alliance Police Nationale, said.
The other major difference, Gaudon said, is that guns are heavily regulated in France: French people don’t own or carry guns on nearly the same level as Americans, meaning police there aren’t obliged to defend themselves against potentially lethal force nearly as often.
American officers killed 3.32 people for every million people in 2019, compared to only 0.39 in France, according to the U.S. site Mapping Police Violence and the French news outlet Basta, as reported by The Wall Street Journal.
But even without the same level of lethal force, Gendrot said, violence still permeates the lives of French police officers. In the book, he noted the high levels of depression and suicide amongst his former colleagues.
Many French police suffer from their own internal violence, he said.
“In fact, French police officers live in violence,” he said. “It is difficult to be a police officer today in France, that working conditions are degraded. We bathe in an atmosphere, in a deleterious, anxiety-provoking atmosphere.”