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Last Updated: Sunday, 13 November 2005, 16:13 GMT
French police take the strain
By Patrick Jackson
BBC News website

The shooting of police with birdshot in the Paris suburb of Grigny on Sunday introduced a new level of violence to the French riots.

French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy speaks beside unidentified injured policeman in Evreux
Sarkozy's tough rhetoric alarms police trade union reps
In the words of local police official Bernard Franio, the Grigny attack was an act of "real, serious violence not like the previous nights".

Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who visited the injured men in hospital in nearby Evry on Monday, noted the pellet impacts on one of their helmets.

"So they were aiming for the head?" he said. "Then they really are louts."

Evry itself had made the news a day earlier when police reported finding a petrol bomb factory in a disused police office.

The irony of this would not be lost upon critics of the French government who accuse of it pulling police out of the community only to have to rush them back dressed in riot gear when violence erupts.

Back to basics

According to Le Monde newspaper, the number of community police officers in one northern town, Tourcoing, has fallen from 350 to 150.

Riot police wait near Toulouse district of Le Mirail as bus burns
National Police, answerable to interior ministry
National Gendarmes, answerable to defence ministry
Municipal Police, recruited by local authorities
Both national forces have their own riot units

In an article published by the same newspaper last week, the minister was unapologetic about such cuts.

While he backed the idea of police forging close ties with the community it was not their role, he said, to "run sporting events".

"Prevention, while indispensable, must not exclude repression each time it proves to be just and necessary."

Tough talk of this kind has earned him the enmity of rioters for whom the sacking of "Sarko" is often cited as a prime goal.

"Big deal!" the minister responded in his Le Monde article, saying that to have his name booed by rioters is "in the order of things".

But some sections of the police themselves are uneasy with their minister's rhetoric, especially his controversial remarks a few days before the riots began about taking a "power hose" to areas with high crime levels.

Taking the flak

Francois Massenet, secretary general of French police trade union UNSA-Police, said it was "too easy to go and stir up the young people and then go off to bed".

French policeman looks at photos of Evry petrol bomb "factory"
Rioters have attacked police with stones, petrol bombs and now guns
"We have to face this situation 24 hours a day," he was quoted by Liberation newspaper as saying.

"You can't say today that you're going to clean out the housing estates with a power hose."

Mr Sarkozy has in fact been making frequent visits to the "front line" - to police units deployed in the areas gripped by violence.

The national secretary of UNSA-Police's Paris branch, Lucien Cozzoli, argues the policy of withdrawing community police may be just as dangerous as the aggressive rhetoric.

"Community police, daily present in the districts, were able to defuse conflicts. We no longer have that defence," he says.

Scores of officers have been injured since 27 October.

"They are very, very tired, they are fighting every night," another police trade unionist, Nicolas Compte, told the BBC World Service.

"We are very upset about it. It is really long and the riots are extending."

New times, new tactics

The government has responded by reinforcing its units on the ground, both with regular police and the paramilitary gendarmes controlled by the defence ministry.

Women police officers watch scorched car being removed from Grigny street
Hundreds of cars have been burnt nightly in the riots

A policy of sealing off troubled areas seems to be having only limited success, however, as rioters can often quickly move elsewhere in small groups.

The police's special CRS riot control force has changed tactics in response, dividing its units into small, mobile groups of six to eight officers which have a better chance of pursuing suspects, police sources told Liberation.

As police officers face stones, petrol bombs and even firearms on a nightly basis, some commentators have made comparisons with the great worker and student unrest of 1968 when the riot police's frequent heavy-handedness drew chants of "SS - CRS" from the demonstrators.

The 2005 street violence began after rumours that two teenagers had been chased to their deaths by police - a charge strongly denied.

Reports of police tear gas entering a mosque further aggravated the situation.

Keenly aware of this, police trade union leaders have called on officers to keep their cool and warn that if they let their emotions boil over verbally or physically "public opinion will not understand and the media will be only too happy to make use of it".

When one policeman was arrested and four others were suspended in connection with an alleged assault on a suspected rioter in the La Courneuve suburb of Paris on 7 November, UNSA and fellow police union SNPT issued an angry demand for the detained officer's release.

The unions said they would never seek to cover up illegitimate use of force by police but the fact that the officer had been put in custody instead of suspended owed "more to political than judicial reasons".

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