David Lawday

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Policing in France and Britain

Restoring confidence locally and nationally

Report of a seminar held in London
8 – 9 November 2000

David Lawday

Franco-British Council

British Section

Victoria Chambers

16-18 Strutton Ground

London SW1P 2HP

Telephone: 020 7976 8380

Fax: 020 7976 8131

Email: fbc@cix.co.uk

http:// www.francobritishcouncil.org.uk

© Franco-British Council British Section 2001

cover design by Dominique Ozturk

printed in Britain by Chameleon Press

ISBN 0 9534856 9 2

The author
David Lawday is Europe correspondent of the New Statesman


Report on the seminar

1 Introduction: friend or enemy?

Public perceptions, structure and organisations 5

  1. A matter of trust:

Police pay, recruitment and consent 6
3 Nabbed! Policing methods 9
4 Policing the police: control and accountability 10
5 Anything you say: suspects’ rights 11
6 Nice work? Measuring performance 13

  1. Where separate ways lead:

international connections 14


  1. British police organisation 2000 by Robert Reiner 17

  2. The French policing system by Jean-Marc Berlioz 21

  3. List of French participants in the seminar 27

  4. List of British participants in the seminar 29
  5. Seminar programme 31

Other Franco-British Council reports

Policing in France and Britain

Restoring confidence locally and nationally
David Lawday

  1. Introduction: Friend or enemy?

Public perceptions, structure and organisation

Most people have little, if anything, to do with the police during their lifetime. This is strange in view of the large role allotted to the police in democratic society. In essence the police is there to save society from itself. Naturally there are different approaches to this task, few more different at first sight than the policing cultures of Britain and France. This too is strange. For the two countries are part of a Europe being knit together into a society in which citizens who do come in contact with the police may legitimately expect some coherence of treatment wherever they go.

What trust, then, should people have in their police? And what are the police doing to earn it? The question brought ambiguous answers from top policemen, criminologists, judges and politicians from either side of the Channel assembled for the seminar. A certain defensiveness, self-criticism even, was apparent among police commanders on both sides. ‘We have seen the enemy,’ one modernising British police chief observed, ‘and it is us.’

One item in the self-indictment is police racism. But there are many problems to policing and there can be no start to examining how it works in these two major European nations without first looking into the apparently opposing concepts that govern the ways their police forces are set up. The basic divergence hardly needed debating at the seminar: British police are there essentially to guard against crime, French police essentially to keep order. A ready symbol of this difference is the gun. Things are beginning to blur here, but the bobby is still (mostly) unarmed, the flic armed. Conflicting histories are the cause. The French are inclined to revolt in order to get where they are going; the British tend to get there with less social disruption. ‘The history of France is the history of the streets, the barricades,’ came an early reminder from the French side.

France takes this twist of national temperament seriously. Consequently, in common with most Latin countries, it has a big police force – at 225,000, nearly twice as big as that of England and Wales. Furthermore, France’s police are split into two distinct camps, the 90,000-strong gendarmerie and the 135,000-strong national police (Police Nationale) although only 113,000 ‘active’ police. The gendarmerie is actually part of the army and comes under the defence ministry, the national police under the interior ministry, though they do much the same thing – the former policing the vast French countryside, the latter controlling towns of some 10,000 and up, with their headquarters in Paris. Inevitably some duplication as well as rivalry occurs, but any thought of combining gendarmes and national police for the sake of economy into a single force (the possibility is indeed raised from time to time) is quashed by the larger thought that order cannot be left to chance. Ultimately the split is regarded as useful, for if one force were to deviate the other would remain to uphold the state. The national police do not have the right to strike but they can join a union.

In contrast to the French system, which is under tight government control, Britain’s is designed to be independent of central government. Down through two centuries has come the murmur, ‘We can’t have the government telling the police what to do.’ Indeed the British were portrayed at the seminar as having a fundamental dislike for the concept of a national police. The sentiment does seem deep-rooted. A year or so before the French Revolution, when William Pitt was toying with the idea of establishing a professional police force modelled on an already centralised French system, the Daily Universal, an influential news sheet of the time, thundered that it would rather deposit its money with an English robber than deposit its liberty with a French police chief. Pitt desisted.

Thus Britain has 52 separate forces, or constabularies. They include London’s Metropolitan Police (by far the largest of all), eight forces in Scotland where 14,000 officers operate under separate Scottish criminal law, and the Royal Ulster Constabulary in Northern Ireland with close to 12,000 officers and full-time reserves. These many local forces, mostly operating within the old shire boundaries, are each headed by a Chief Constable -- in London’s case the Commissioner -- who answers to himself and to a local police authority that holds him to account. But the tradition of constabulary independence is clearly waning; not only because of the formation in recent years of a national crime squad (NCS) and a national criminal intelligence service (NCIS) which transcend constabulary boundaries. While some British police chiefs at the seminar believed the independence tradition was still holding good, others on the same side regarded it as a shell. For Britain’s police had become a de facto national force under Home Office control once policing standards and policies began to be developed nationally. This started in 1994, when reforms were imposed to fight off police corruption, abuse of power and racial discrimination in constabulary ranks. Indeed, deepening tensions were noted at the seminar between the desire to maintain independent local forces and the public security agenda of the Home Office, which ultimately holds the purse strings and, some participants contended, directs financing towards forces that try hardest to meet its objectives.

  1. A matter of trust:

Police pay, recruitment, and consent

The golden fleece the police are chasing is public trust, and here the ‘bobby’ may have an edge over the flic. The tradition of local policing in Britain has put the policeman in closer contact with the community. These are still relatively early days in the recruitment of women into the police, but women officers now represent more than 16% of the police in Britain as against 10% in France. While neither the French nor the British police officer ranks is ranked highly by society in terms of pay, the average bobby (police constable) does fare better. Whilst he earns a starting salary of £16,500 a year (rising to £25,000), his French counterpart gets around £14,000 (FF11,500 a month) with a complex system of bonuses. The main factor affecting police pay is the place of work (in particular whether they work in or around Paris or in the rest of France). Gendarmes, being army professionals, earn a bit more than regular French policemen. But wry smiles appeared on British police faces in response to the claim that the police in Britain enjoyed more respect than almost any other profession – up there with doctors, and well ahead of politicians, lawyers and journalists. For low pay was seen by both sides as a serious barrier to attracting the right calibre of recruit.

What was easier to recognise was that efficient policing requires public consent. The consent cannot be assumed, it has to be won. But how? The trouble is, it seems easier to lose it than win it. This is partly because society has been changing faster than police attitudes, with drugs taking an increasingly high place on the public danger list. Moreover, both France and Britain have sizeable ethnic minority communities that are integrated to a greater or lesser degree. Police ranks don’t reflect such change. In Britain, where 7% 1 of the population belong to minority ethnic groups, just 2% of police officers are non-white. In France, the ratio would seem roughly similar though, heaven forbid, there are no official figures. French participants said they could get locked up if they published figures related to racial origins. These are outlawed in France as an intended guard against racial discrimination. But apart from a number of black French citizens from France’s overseas territories, it may be vouched that there are virtually no youngsters of North African origin– the so-called beurs who are the mainspring of France’s modern immigrant community – entering the regular police. Since 1997 France has had a new sector of security personnel known as adjoints de sécurité, who are employed on a five-year contract within public law and give the police a more down to earth image reflecting France’s population. The task of integrating 20,000 young people into society, many of who are recent immigrants to France and from the most difficult neighbourhoods, is particularly challenging.

Their relations with the police are bad. They refuse to join, the seminar heard, despite current efforts (unofficial of course) to recruit non-whites. They face ostracism from their community if they try. Rancour left over from the Algerian war and fed through from families is a factor. Worse, more than 40% of complaints against the police investigated in France involve brutality, mostly against beurs. Despite the legal clampdown on statistics alluding to race, French television images rarely let it pass that in the not infrequent cases of police “mistakes” involving the fatal use of firearms, the victims are invariably young people of Arab/North African origin.

There could be some hope here however. French police racism is non-ideological, the seminar heard, it is racism ‘by default’. An anti-youth reflex. The young harass the police because it represents authority. Its role is to repress. Consequently, a French flic’s existence is one of perpetual confrontation with the public – and he is likely to react against the usual harassers. Improved training can ease the problem. French police recruits receive one year’s training – half the period for British recruits. A stronger sign of hope, though, is the fact that in the next 12 years fully half of France’s Police Nationale is to be replaced. ‘This is a chance to put things right that must not be missed,’ a French police chief noted. Improved vocational training aimed at making new officers sensitive to changes in society is the priority.

Table: Contrasting Police




58.1 million


Police strength



Women police



Ethnic minority population

7% (see footnote)

7% (estimate)

Ethnic minority police

2% (March 2000)

2-3% *

Police training

2 years

1 year

Qualification on entry



Annual starting pay (regular officer)


FF 138,000 (c£14,000)

*Officers from overseas possessions, unofficial estimate sources: police
British police are already engaged in a change of mindset – with good reason. Public confidence in the police, the seminar heard, had been seriously eroded by racism. The problem had sparked big city riots in the 1980s. Trust among black citizens was still low, particularly in cosmopolitan London, where a third of the inhabitants are from visible ethnic minorities. The most damning indictment against police attitudes came in the 1999 Macpherson Inquiry Report on the police’s mishandling of the case of Stephen Lawrence, a black youngster murdered by white youths on the street in 1993. The report found the Metropolitan Police to be ‘institutionally racist’. Stop-and-search tactics are still disproportionately directed against blacks.

As the Met sets about trying to solve the racism problem, reform could receive a boost from modern London’s first mayor, the newly-elected Ken Livingstone, who wants the Met to reflect the ethnic origins of the capital’s population. Livingstone’s election this year was cited as evidence that Londoners wanted a fair, non-discriminatory police, though the mayor may find it hard to meet his aims. ‘Blacks don’t come rushing to the police door,’ noted a reforming Chief Constable, who regularly holds ‘open days’ to lure black recruits, and offers scholarships and other inducements, but to little avail. ‘The issue is to make the black community believe the police is there to help them.’ Moreover, the pressure for a quick fix on racial quotas in the police may merely soothe political sensibilities instead of making the police more modern.

  1. Nabbed! Policing methods

Public trust is also related to police methods. Different as their cultures are, the British and French police seem to be drawing closer here. Neither has much regard for ‘zero tolerance’ methods developed in America. The tactic is seen as clumsy or plain wrong for European society. But the traditional emphasis in Britain on community or neighbourhood policing (in the ‘Dixon of Dock Green’ vein that warmed post-war television viewers’ hearts) has had its ups and downs in the face of radical changes in society. The kindly copper who knows everyone on his beat has had his day. This is partly the result of technological change. The police no longer occupy the street; they borrow the street – with the assistance of mobile phones and sophisticated communications techniques.

Technology’s role can only grow. It came as an eye-opener to seminar participants that the vibrant West End of London with maybe one million people out on the streets at night (including Soho with its ‘monster’ drug problem) was regularly policed of an evening by just 20-30 officers out in cars or on foot. This wasn’t put forward as a desirable state of affairs. But neither was it simply a reflection of a shortage of officers. Technology made it possible.

As intimacy fades from Britain’s neighbourhood policing tradition, the French police are seeking to create some. Increasingly they are moving to crime prevention tactics to complement, even stand in for, the prime strategy of keeping order. Police de proximité (Neighbourhood policing) is seen as the way ahead now in France, though it seems obstructed by the fact that police officers seldom live in the neighbourhood they are assigned to – and gendarmes, being part of the army, live in barracks. Nonetheless, some 10% of French officers received comprehensive special training in neighbourhood policing during 2000 – a major shift in training priorities. The solution lies in forming a partnership, or sealing a ‘security contract’ with a community. This means tying local schools, businesses, town halls, judges and the like into anti-crime programmes. Similar community partnerships are built in Britain, though without judges, who mustn’t get cosy with the police. The contracts are strengthened by an array of new crime-prevention concepts, such as ‘intelligence-led policing’ which means uncovering potential threats to the community and targeting them.

For all the new French interest in neighbourhood policing, gut policing instincts hold. One is: We must show who’s boss here. A big city French superintendent responsible for tough districts where gangs had all but succeeded in closing off access to the police asserted: ‘There can be no such thing as a no-go area. We aim to show it can’t exist. We move in – not to do anything in particular, just to show we go there.’ A prime French objective was to occupy territory which the public expected the police to occupy.

The physical methods available to fight crime are a problem in themselves. All are socially objectionable in one way or another. Here lies the essential problem of the police. Principles and morals become blurred in the hurly-burly of everyday policing, participants conceded. There is no way out: from among the various objectionable options the policeman in a tight situation is obliged to choose one. Sometimes violence is necessary to head off violence. This can go as far as killing. The ‘dirty hands’ dilemma has cut into Britain’s proud custom of an unarmed police. Increasingly British officers are armed when consigned to some special task where danger threatens. This brings them closer to the French police – and to most other forces around the world for that matter – who routinely carry firearms but may only use them when there is a credible threat to their own lives.

The ‘dirty hands’ contradiction was recognised at the seminar as being at the heart of a democratic state. How far should the police go in deception? Intrusion into the private life of citizens? Telephone bugging? Consorting with criminals? Lawless undercover wiles were frequently necessary to tackle money laundering, drug dealing and the criminal underworld. It takes a thief to catch a thief. Seminar participants weren’t about to repudiate the adage. There was no saying what knavery London detectives indulged in to be able to leap in and nab the underworld veterans who held up the Millennium Dome recently. The thieves scarcely had time to view their spoils before being rounded up.

The answer seems to be that the police can dirty their hands as long as the public accepts such methods as a justifiable means to an end. Which is again why winning public consent is crucial. In France too, the public was seen as being more concerned with police efficiency than with police methods. ‘Dirty hands’ were all right with the French as long as they did the job. One way in which British police seek to ensure public acceptance is by a new policy of transparency, with police chiefs regularly giving press conferences to explain what has been done and how, and lay visitors invited in to talk with criminal suspects held for interrogation.

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