“That’s right, it’s a red firetruck. Firefighters help people when there is a fire. And this is…”
“They are like doctors who help people when there is an accident.”
“Ooooh… police car! Fast, fast! Police…?”
“The police? They…”
“CRS; SS!” “Police partout, justice nulle part!” « L’État opprime, la police assassine”
Grow up, Juliette. You are no longer an angry teenager.
“The police help people when they have a problem,” I reply to Mark, almost convincingly.
A two-and-a-half-year-old doesn’t need to be brainwashed. He doesn’t need to know that his mom was tear-gased more than once (including one time when she was pregnant, for just taking pictures of riot cops dispersing protesters), and that she always carried lemons and a large scarf to cover her face during demonstrations. He doesn’t need to know that his mother was not the last one to call the cops “poulets” (“chicken”, French equivalent of “pigs”).
No, he doesn’t.
Yet, I nudge him to play with the firetruck rather than the police car.
A tall ideological wall divides my French family. On my mother’s side, family members come in various flavours of left-wing movements—anarchists, communists, Trotskyists, etc. None of them particularly like the police or the military. On my father’s side, they are the police. All of them. My grand-father is a former gendarme, his brother was an anti-riot cop and the list goes on. The tradition stopped with my father’s generation, though. Neither he nor his four brothers and sisters embraced the blue or khaki uniform.
As you can imagine, there is a huge clash of ideologies and I’m not too close to my paternal grand-parents. My father is probably the one who is the most on the fence—he still grew up in a police station, after all—but he is also an artist and creativity and law enforcement have little in common (unless you are into forensic art, I suppose).
I grew up wary of the police. In the 1980s and 1990s, the “old guard”, who wore the uniform during the bloody Algerian War of Independence where torture was used, made repression the preferred option. Racial profiling and police brutality was common. The police was associated with a number of incidents, crimes and dubious operations: Malik Oussekine, beaten to death in 1986 after a mass demonstration in which he did not take part; Makome M’Bowole, shot in 1993; brutality and abuses against migrants at Sangatte, around Calais and at the Église Saint-Bernard; violent treatment of protesters in general; brutality in French ghettos occasionally leading to riots, etc.
Basically, the police were a source of tension, not friendly watchful eyes looking after the community. And they were above the law too: in the absence of an independent investigation system, the officers were immune to prosecution. Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International often express concerns’ about French law enforcement suppressive role and occasional abuse of force. Sarkozy, the nasty authoritarian who fulfilled his election pledges to impose law and order and respect of authorities, encouraged such behaviours.
Times have changed a bit, I think. The old guard retired and younger police officers reflect a country that is more multicultural, more open to diversity, less patriarchal. There is hope… I think.
Meanwhile, in Canada, things are a bit different. It’s a quieter country, for sure, and while cases of police brutality do surface once in a while, they are fairly rare and most of the population seems to have a cordial or neutral relationship with law enforcement. I have rarely dealt with the police in 12 years here—Feng’s old car was stolen and then found about ten years ago, and one night a SWAT team led an operation in our neighborhood—but I can safely say I would trust them. At least, until I’m proven otherwise.
The French police? Nah. I’ll keep on running faster than them.
Note: I was searching through my Flickr albums to find the French riot cops pictures I took a few years ago, when I stumbled upon this shot with NYC policemen. It doesn’t show much but I was six-month pregnant with Mark and I didn’t remember having the picture taken! Pregnant women are weird, I’m telling you.