From the archive, 17 March 1962: The Police of Paris

Originally published in the Guardian on 17 March 1962

“A British philosopher,” I remarked to a jack-booted riot policeman as we took coffee in a bistro, “once observed that ‘a policeman’s lot is not a happy one.'” “He was well informed!” retorted the flic, “and even then he was probably talking about Scotland Yard. While we, we have to cart around these machine guns, eat at all hours, and face mobs every other week.”

Is all this violence really necessary? “Don’t ask me. I’m only a private. I get £45 a month for doing what I’m told. Two years ago I had the prospect of slow starvation on my father’s small farm. Now I have a steady salary and free meals while I am on duty.”

Do you like to hit people on the head? He gave me a sharp look. “If I do hit people, it’s under orders. You wouldn’t ask a soldier a question like that, would you?”

The Captain of the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité was a sturdy, shrewd little countryman with an emphatic manner. “The CRS patrol the beaches to save people from drowning; climb mountains to rescue foolhardy Alpinists; give instructions on civic spirit in the schools – and performing these activities we are well liked … We are also called in in case of civil disturbance. But we are a paramilitary group: we never in these cases operate individually. You will never see a CRS careering down a side street after a demonstrator.”

The following day I spoke to an official of the Syndicat Général de la Police, the largest of the police unions. “We have suggested better ways of dealing with these demonstrations. Take the case of the North African demonstrations on October 17 in which so many people were killed. We appealed to the authorities to let us arrest the FLN organisers. We could have neutralised the demonstration. But we were not allowed.

“Afterwards we had to do it anyway. We shipped back hundreds of Moslems to Algeria. But at the time when our men saw 30,000 Algerians swarming through the streets – with memories of years of terrorism behind them – they were not going to hand out any presents! Then we were called racialists!”

[On 17 October 1961, some 30,000 pro-FLN (National Liberation Front) Algerians marched in Paris in support of Algerian independence and were brutally attacked by French police. Up to 200 demonstrators were killed, some of whom had been thrown in the river Seine with their hands tied.] © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

from Peter Lennon


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