British police must learn from France in dealing with Extinction Rebellion

19 February 2020

10:06 PM

19 February 2020

10:06 PM

I’ve always been a fan of the French police, in part because when I lived in the south of the country I played rugby in a team that contained a couple of coppers who told me stories of what they had to deal with on a daily basis. But I’m also a little partial to them because they do what it says on the tin: they police

I recall a summer’s evening in Montpellier a few years ago when two young drunks were causing a disturbance for diners and drinkers in a crowded square. The police arrived and manhandled the louts into their squad car, one of whom made the mistake of resisting arrest. As he was manoeuvred into the back seat the man’s head met the door frame. An accident? Mais oui, and one that drew a raucous cheer from diners.

The French police don’t mess about. Very occasionally, they may be a little heavy-handed but isn’t that better than half-hearted, which is what some British police appear to have become? There are still, of course, plenty within Britain’s rank and file who do a terrific job. And there are also some splendid specialist officers, as we saw earlier this month in the response to the Islamist attack in Streatham. But the average bobby is in danger of becoming something of a joke.

I assumed things couldn’t get any worse after those photographs last year of police dancing and skateboarding with protestors during the Extinction Rebellion protest that brought chaos to London. But what has unfolded this week in Cambridge – where climate change activists dug up Trinity College’s ancient lawn – has proved me wrong. Are the police now the paramilitary wing of the Guardian?

The difference between French police and their British counterparts is more than just ideological. In appearance they are also often worlds apart. I can’t remember seeing a French copper sporting trendy body art or a natty hipster beard. Yet in Britain, rules on tattoos have been relaxed for new recruits for the Met. The tendency for some officers in Britain to try and police social networks – even, in one instance, turning up at a man’s office after he wrote tweets including: ‘I was assigned mammal at birth but I identify as fish. Don’t mis-species me….’ – is another worrying development.

It might also be an idea if the police dropped the ‘guys’ and ‘mate’ terms of address and reverted to ‘sir’ and ‘madam’. In all my dealings with the French police (always on the right side of the law, I hasten to add), I’ve never been addressed other than ‘monsieur’.

Nor have I heard of a gendarme contacting a 74-year-old woman to warn she is ideologically out of line. That may be because they’re too busy battling Islamists, environmentalists, anarchists, angry trade unionists and yobs in yellow vests.

While there have, in recent months, been a handful of incidents of excessive force involving French police, overall the response has been remarkably disciplined given what the police are up against. Barely a week goes by without the police coming under attack. Imagine what that does to those on the frontline, enduring not just paving stones and Molotov cocktails, but also mocking chants about the rising number of police suicides.

In recent years, the killing of police personnel in France has been the sole preserve of Islamist extremists, but that’s not for want of trying by some on the far-left. In 2016, for example, two policemen were fortunate to escape with their lives when an Antifa mob surrounded their car and set it on fire and then attacked them with iron bars as they scrambled clear.

There are still elements of the liberal establishment in France which attempt to portray the French police as thugs in uniform, but the public aren’t fooled. They know who are the villains and who are the victims. This is why a recent poll found that the majority of the public believe they have acted proportionally in recent confrontations with strikers and yellow vests. That’s because the police are still in tune with the majority of French people, sharing a respect for law and order and a love of their country and its culture. Can the same be said for the response of police in Cambridge to what unfolded this week?

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