The colonial roots of French policing cannot be ignored

The colonial roots of French policing cannot be ignored
As protests are met with excessive police violence, a true reckoning with France's colonial past requires taking steps towards abolition, writes Noura Salem.
5 min read
27 Apr, 2023
French Riot Police detain a protestor as over 400,000 people take to the streets during a nationwide strike against President Macron's Pension reform plans and the rising cost of living on 19 January 2023 in Paris, France. [Getty]

Since the beginning of 2023, thousands of workers - including teachers, railway workers, and public service workers - have organised demonstrations and nationwide strikes across France in resistance to Macron’s plans to marketise the pension system. For trade unions, the “safeguarding of the pension system” has been viewed as, “one of the recurrent battles against the neoliberals”.

In spite of growing resistance against Macron’s plans of privatisation, Macron forcibly passed his unpopular pension reform using special constitutional powers and recently signed his pension reform into law.

In response to daily demonstrations held in Paris, Marseille, and cities nationwide, Gerald Dermaninin, the French interior minister previously accused of sexual abuse and criticised for his Islamophobic and xenophobic policies, also called for the deployment of 13,000 officers with nearly half of them concentrated in Paris.

Videos have emerged on social media of French police forces brutally assaulting protestors using tear-gas and batons. Hundreds of people have reportedly been arrested and detained, with undercover police also being sent in to surveil protestors.

"France's violent history of colonialism and imperialism demonstrates how policing is structured to protect colonial interests and capital"

Counter-protests have since been organised denouncing the violence of the police. In Marseille, banners read, “from the city to the border, from Marseille to Sainte Soline, the violence is policing, the state murders” while demonstrators chant, “everybody hates the police”. Attacks on worker’s rights have increasingly been connected to police violence against protestors and migrants crossing the border.

Whilst some human rights organisations and policymakers have criticised the excessive violence of the French police, there has been no outright recognition of the disproportionate impacts of policing on Black, Muslim, and migrant communities in France.

A Belgian MEP in the European parliament did say that, “if there are exaggerated police responses”, they “must be denounced”. But what constitutes an “exaggerated” police response when the police is institutionally built on the violence of the modern French state?

France’s violent history of colonialism and imperialism demonstrates how policing is structured to protect colonial interests and capital. Since the development of the French empire, police forces internationally repressed revolt in colonies across Africa and the Caribbean.

During the French monarchy, King Louis XVI expanded policing of people of African descent both in the imperial metropole and overseas, and Napoleon Bonaparte in the nineteenth century had further institutionalised policing through racial censuses.

In the twentieth century, French security services played a crucial role in infiltrating socialist movements in French colonies that were calling for decolonisation.

The Paris Massacre of 1961

The Paris Massacre of 1961 and the criminalisation of Algerians in the metropole significantly exposes the colonial basis of the French police state. Over 60 years ago, the French state imposed a curfew on Algerians living in Paris due to the triumph of the Algerian liberation struggle and the threat to French colonial interests presented by African decolonisation movements.

As many as 30,000 people protested this curfew and were met with French riot police, coordinated by Maurice Papon, who was responsible for the Nazi deportation of French Jews. The French police state, under the command of Charles de Gaulle, was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Algerians and the incarceration of 14,000 people.

Although France could not prevent the success of the liberation of Algeria from its colonial grip, French authorities covered up the atrocities of the 1961 massacre. Left-wing parties in France were complicit in this cover-up of police violence, as they had only launched legal proceedings against the repression of anti-war protestors but not the attacks on colonised and displaced people.

Whilst empty statements have been made in memory of the 1961 massacre, including by Macron who recently called the crimes of Papon “inexcusable”, these weak attempts at accountability are only antithetical to the ongoing policing of Black, Arab, Muslim, and migrant communities in France.

Any reckoning of French colonial history would require the dismantling of police both in the metropole and in their pervasive neo-colonial presence across Africa and the Caribbean.

"The current demonstrations against police violence must recognise that policing is a constitutive element to the colonial modern French state"

Ongoing policing of Black and migrant communities

In a 2020 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, testimonies from Black and Arab youth in France indicated the brutality of police stop-and-searches and how police have used identity checks, especially during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, to exert authority and proliferate poor neighbourhoods with a majority immigrant population.

Valentin Gendrot, a journalist who went undercover to infiltrate the French police forces, also reported the extent to which Black, Arab, and migrant youth were dehumanised, facing attacks by police on an almost daily basis.

For migrants displaced by Western imperialism and the impacts of global capitalism, “mass eviction operations, police harassment, and restrictions on humanitarian assistance” are a regular occurrence. With the British government funding over fifty million pounds into the French border police, borders are not only an apparatus of state violence that police primarily uphold, but a transnational investment by European imperial powers to control and profit from the movement of displaced people.

Of course, the HRW report only reiterates what Black, Arab, and migrant communities in France only know too well. With the recent murders of three Kurdish activists, and increasing surveillance of Muslim women in France, for Black, Arab, and migrant communities, policing is the daily threat of violence looming in the imperial metropole.

The current demonstrations against police violence must recognise that policing is a constitutive element to the colonial modern French state. Several policymakers and MEPs have compiled recommendations on reforming the police, but reform is not enough for an intentionally violent and colonial institution.

There is no “bout” or “event” of abuse with an institution that has been made to protect the state’s colonial and capitalist interests by any means.

If there is to be any engagement with the colonial history behind French policing, the French left and labour movement must take seriously the demands by Black, Arab, and migrant activists for total police abolition.

Noura Salem is an organiser, historian and writer.

Have questions or comments? Email us at:

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.