What's behind the wave of French police suicides?

2 March 2022

6:00 PM

2 March 2022

6:00 PM

Since Russia invaded Ukraine last week the western media has focused on little else. In Britain this concentration is understandable: the country has finally come out of Covid and there is a large gap to be filled on the airwaves and in the newspapers.

Not so in France, still encumbered by Covid restrictions, where in just over five weeks voters go to the polls in the first round of the presidential election. As much as the French are troubled by events in Ukraine – a recent poll reported that 88 per cent of those canvassed were ‘shocked’ by the Russian invasion – they will vote on issues closer to home: the rising cost of living, immigration, the health service, and crime and violence.

None of these issues are now being discussed in the media, or by the candidates. Emmanuel Macron still hasn’t declared his candidature, although the deadline for doing so is on Friday. The President’s best-laid plans have been thrown into disarray by the invasion, particularly as last month he styled himself as the world’s peacemaker, only to get played by Putin. Not that his rivals can crow: Marine Le Pen, Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Éric Zemmour, all admirers of Putin in the past, have been keeping a low profile in the last week.

The retreat into relative silence by the candidates on the main election issues is a tragedy for the French, who have endured a turbulent few years since Macron was elected. A minority have fared well – the affluent 25 per cent whose support for Macron has never wavered – but for the majority the phrase they most frequently mutter is ras-le­-bol (best translates as ‘thoroughly fed-up’). It is the mot du jour of Macron’s presidency and for none more so than the police.

In January this year, 12 of their number took their own lives. It was a similar figure in the first month of 2019, a particularly bleak year for police suicides with 59 in total. That was during the height of the yellow vest movement when, for months, protestors clashed with officers in cities across France. There was also the ongoing threat posed by Islamist terrorists, who have for many years singled out police officers as targets.

The number of suicides dropped from 2019 to 2020, from 59 down to 32, probably as a result of the lockdown restrictions that curtailed the number of violent street protests and terrorist attacks. The average number of annual suicides among police officers in England and Wales in the period 2010 to 2017 was 23.

Gérald Darmanin, the minister of the interior, believes that the suicides in January were unconnected with the strain of the job. Instead, he attributed it to ‘the personal and not professional life of these people’. This is contested by various police associations and unions, who point to the 6,000 calls they received last year from worn-out police officers. ‘The hours, the insults, the way of working… there’s no limit to the pressure we face,’ explained Didier Crassous, a union official. ‘All this means that we are under permanent pressure… we have a hierarchy that squeezes our colleagues like lemons. There is no longer any peace in your work.’

Critics of the police point to a few high-profile incidents in recent months that have tarnished their image: the vicious attack on a black man that was caught on CCTV; the manhandling of a bystander on the Champs-Élysées during an anti-Covid passport demo and the insults directed at a woman as she reported an alleged sexual assault.

Serious as these incidents are, they are a minority and, like the British police, the French generally do a good job in difficult circumstances. Indeed, French police are more respected than their British colleagues because the public is appreciative of their courage and fortitude during a period when violent crime has never been so prevalent. Meanwhile, the higher echelons of the French police have not been captured by the progressive dogma the way many British police chiefs have.

In trying to offer a reason for the number of suicides, a psychologist told Le Figaro newspaper in January that there was a greater burden on the police today because ‘society has changed and no longer looks at them the same way it did a dozen years ago’.

That claim is not corroborated by history. In 2006, 50 police personnel took their own lives and in 1996 there were 71 suicides, the highest number on record. What links these two years with 2019 is that they all followed periods of violent unrest. In 1995 there was a spate of Islamist terrorist attacks in France that killed eight and injured 200, followed at the end of the year by a series of widespread public sector strikes. In 2005, France was riven by weeks of rioting after two adolescents were electrocuted as they climbed on a sub-station while fleeing the police.

The omens do not look good for 2022. The invasion of Ukraine has distracted the attention of the French but it will not be for long. The winner of next month’s election will preside over a country that is bitterly divided and despondent, fearful of a rise in the cost of living and in violent crime. Whoever is in the Élysée will have to try and plot a way out of the depression. But it will be the police who once more will bear the brunt of the people’s anger.

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