… Just Take the Firetruck

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Duplo Cop, Ottawa, May 2015

Duplo Cop, Ottawa, May 2015


“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”

I mute the French anti-police slogans that automatically play in my head when I hear the word “police”.

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.


About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.


  1. Martin Penwald on

    « Étudiants ! diants ! diants ! »

    Techniquement, les bœufs-carrottes (les flics de l’IGS, Inspection Générale des Services) sont chargés d’enquêter dans les affaires de bavure policière (« T’aurais vu la gueule de la bavure ! Moi, ça m’a passé l’envie de baver ») et autres.
    Mais bon. La police de proximité qui avait été mise en place par le gouvernement Jospin était une bonne idée, ça permettait aux gens des banlieues de se familiariser avec les forces de l’ordre en évitant le côté négatif. C’est une des premières choses que Fachozy a supprimé quand il est arrivé à l’Intérieur. La patrie et ce genre de chose, c`est pas trop mon truc, mais pour Ie coup, traître à Ia patrie, c`est un quaIificatif qui Iui irait.

    • Je trouve aussi que la police de proximité était une bonne idée, ça permettait de casser le schisme du “nous” contre “eux”. Sarko n’a vraiment rien fait de bien. Franchement, je ne vois pas pour quoi on peut le remercier… d’avoir perdu les élections, peut-être?

      • Martin Penwald on

        Dans la série « The wire » , il y a un arc qui illustre ce problème dans la saison 3. Mais les 5 saisons valent le détour.
        Et d’ailleurs, « Baltimore » de David Simon (principal scénariste de « The wire » ) est le récit de son immersion dans la brigade des homicides de Baltimore pendant un an, c’est une lecture extrêmement intéressante, mais qui concerne moins les rapports de la police avec la population.

          • Martin Penwald on

            Oui, c’est très bon. C’est assez sombre, il y a même quelques scènes assez glauques, on n’est pas chez les Bisounours, mais il y a des personnages très humains, que ce soit chez les flics ou les trafiquants de drogue. On peut éventuellement la voir comme une critique sur le déterminisme social, difficile de se sortir de la misère autrement que par les petits trafics, puis les plus gros.

  2. No Indian would even lift an eyebrow in surprise about all this. We would be rather surprised to hear about what you say of the ones in Canada. But no matter what happens, my skepticism ain’t gonna fade away. Any experience leaves a bitter taste. No offense to any individual though.

    Loved what you said at the end “Pregnant women are weird, I am telling you” It made me laugh.

  3. Why lemons?
    Whoa i can’t believe you were teared gas while pregnant. Ouch !!
    I feel the same about the police in Abidjan and Baltimore…so far, only had good experiences with police in Canada.

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