America Has a National Guard. France Has National Riot Police.
The United States can use either community police or the military to oversee protests and quell riots—but does it need something in between?
As the United States tries to prevent public protest following the killing of George Floyd from spiraling into further violence, it’s tempting to think of French policing as an example to be followed. France’s long history of street protest, from the ritual to the insurrectional, dovetails with its history of developing police units devoted to maintaining public order under chaotic conditions. The country now has, on average, 10 political marches every day; that makes about 3,600 events requiring crowd control a year—or double that if you add official visits and other troublesome occasions like football matches.
Nobody in France ever imagines calling for the military to patrol these events. Instead, they are overseen by dedicated French riot units especially trained for policing instances of civic unrest. These units’ origins trace back 99 years; today there are two separate national forces of riot police, together 26,000 strong, and several city-based forces to supplement them.
There are lessons to be learned from France’s long experience with riot police. Not all of those lessons, however, are positive. Having covered examples of public disorder, big and small, in France for more than two decades, I can attest that French riot police are more professional, more restrained and less violent, and more diverse, in gender and ethnicity, than ever. But they are struggling to cope with new challenges and changed times.
France’s methods of public order policing were much criticized, at home and abroad, during the yellow vest protests in 2018 and 2019, which caused over 4,000 injuries to police and protesters. During 71 consecutive weekends of yellow vest protest in cities across France—very big protests at the start, tiny by the end—not one demonstrator was killed by police action. But even President Emmanuel Macron was forced to admit that he had been shocked by some of the injuries—including two dozen lost eyes—caused by controversial, nonlethal police weapons.
Mathieu Zagrodzki, a sociologist who has studied policing in both France and the United States, said: “The French police injure a lot of people, but they kill very few.” In the extensive 2005 riots against police violence in the French banlieues (the multiracial inner suburbs), there were only three deaths.
Nevertheless, French tactics and training have failed to adjust to more unpredictable and violent types of rioting, beyond the ritualized confrontations of the past in which rules of engagement were understood on both sides. Their new weapons, intended to reduce direct contact with protesters, such as rubber bullets and stun grenades, have proved more dangerous than their old truncheons and staves. Tellingly, the two main bodies of French riot police have refused to join a European Union-wide police debate on best practice for defusing anger on the streets.
It’s fair to wonder why France requires two separate national forces of riot police in the first place. If you attend a demonstration or a riot in France these days, the defenders of the state resemble medieval knights in armor with a variety of uniforms and a rainbow of helmet colors—black with yellow bands, light blue, darker blue, or white. This multiplicity of forces is unique to France. Other EU countries have a single, dedicated corps of riot police or none.
There are historical reasons for this bureaucratic overlap. After several bad experiences with using troop or temporary units of gendarmes for crowd control in the early 20th century, France set up a permanent squad of riot police in 1921. By 1926, they had expanded into the Mobile Republican Guard, attached to the Gendarmerie, the paramilitary force that polices rural areas. This unit evolved over the years into the Mobile Gendarmerie Squadron, now 12,800 strong, divided into 109 squadrons and 18 groups and scattered all over provincial France. They are sent, as needed, in fleets of buses and vans to police demonstrations and state occasions. They wear light blue helmets.
The other nationwide French police force, the civilian National Police, which operates in cities and big towns, had long wanted a riot force of its own. In 1944, with German soldiers still on French soil, Charles de Gaulle, fearful of a Communist uprising, gave the National Police the Companies for Republican Security (CRS). The CRS is now 13,100 strong, divided into 60 companies, mostly housed in French cities. These companies perform exactly the same roles as the mobile gendarmerie, but they have a different style of armored uniform and wear black helmets with yellow bands. The CRS, once a byword for brutality, has become much more disciplined in recent years. It has also—and the two may be connected—recruited women for the first time. By my observation, 1 in 10 CRS police nowadays, including many senior officers, are women.
In 2003, Nicolas Sarkozy, then interior minister, added a series of local “security and intervention companies” to deal with riots and other public order offenses in the poor multiracial suburbs. They wear dark blue helmets. There are also, in Paris alone, the Intervention Companies (navy helmets with light blue bands) and Violence Suppression Brigades (white helmets). Other, plainclothes police units in jeans, leather jackets, and motorcycle helmets of many colors frequently attend the biggest demonstrations.
Confusing? Yes—for the French police as well as for the country’s citizens. Meanwhile, the business of policing political or social protest in France has also grown more complicated. There used to be an unofficial working manual for French demonstrations, observed by all sides save a fringe of violent troublemakers (known as “casseurs” or “smashers”). The protesters—steelworkers, wine-growers, students, lawyers, chefs—would agree to an itinerary. They would provide their own security staff. They would march on the agreed route. They would throw a few missiles at the police. The police would respond, usually halfheartedly, with tear gas or baton charges. Sometimes, with the more radical protests, there would be serious scuffles or hand-to-hand fighting.
In the last 15 or so years, two rules-free forms of protest have emerged. First, there is the fast-moving urban—or in France, suburban—riot, in which there are no clear battle lines. These are comparatively rare and happen mostly at night. They involve gangs of youths. Cars and public buildings are burned. Shops are looted.
Second, there are street marches that refuse to accept, or stick to, agreed itineraries. Groups break away and attack buildings or shops or cars or the police. This was the pattern of the most violent yellow vest demonstrations, which began as a peaceful protest by the provincial working and lower-middle class against fuel taxes and the urban elite. They were hijacked by a violent, angry fringe of yellow vests and then hijacked again by organized radical anarchist and anti-capitalist groups—the so-called “black blocs.”
The present tactical doctrine of the French riot police, of all stripes and helmet colors, is to stand back and protect the biggest public buildings. Tear gas, rubber bullets, and stun grenades are to be used to keep the crowds at bay—and on their declared routes. Riot police are trained to act only in groups and only on direct orders. They have, in theory, no right of individual action or initiative. They are supposed to aim their nonlethal weapons below the waist and not use stun grenades in densely packed crowds.
The more radical yellow vest protesters and allies overwhelmed those tactics, burning cars and buildings around the Champs-Élysées in December 2018 and March 2019. After that, the police tactics became more aggressive—sometimes overaggressive. For weeks, the different police and gendarmerie units shifted between defensive and aggressive tactics without finding the right balance. In my experience, police attacks on peaceful demonstrators were rare to nonexistent, but less violent yellow vest demonstrators often found themselves injured in the crossfire.
What the French police rarely did—unlike their German, Dutch, and British counterparts—was to find ways of defusing the tension or anger. Some of the yellow jacket protesters, it is true, had no interest in talking. But French police hardly attempted de-escalation. In neighboring Germany and the Netherlands, police have developed noncoercive crowd control ideas, such as giant screens to keep protesters informed of police intentions. France has specialized in crowd control tactics that are nonlethal, but it would be a mistake to think of them as nonviolent.
France, for all its experience, is ultimately not an ideal model for the United States to follow. In part, that’s because of some of France’s own weaknesses—the ways that French riot police, perhaps because of their long tradition, have neglected techniques to de-escalate, rather than simply subdue, civic unrest. More importantly, there are serious social differences between Europe and the United States that make an American gendarmerie difficult to imagine. America is a heavily armed country. France is not—which is why, perhaps in part, its police forces feel they can focus their attention on nonlethal tactics.