France: police violence as part of colonial history

France: police violence as part of colonial history
In France, at a time when there is increasing controversy over the role of the police, there is a tendency to forget the colonial origins of state brutality, and the influence of a “know-how” acquired during Algeria’s war of independence.
10 min read
01 Jul, 2022
French police officer and soldier search civilians in 1956, amidst the Algerian War of independence. [GETTY]

The power of the police was originally developed in the Western world as a vast system for the capture of bodies deemed abnormal: Jews, “witches”, homosexuals, prostitutes, “mad” men and women, the destitute, later to control unruly behaviour of the populace and put down social rebel-lions linked with the growth of the bourgeois metropolis. However, as historian Emmanuel Blanchard has written, the police as an institution may also be regarded as “colonial by nature”. It is particularly rooted in the slave-operated plantation through the normalisation of militias de-signed to hunt down runaways.

Throughout the colonial era, the military/police system for the repression of rebellion and the everyday disciplining of the colonised bodies constitutes a basic repertory.

The wars later waged by the “Western” States against the populations of the global South have regularly and deeply influenced the transformations of police power. With France and Britain’s colonial wars in Asia and Africa, those of the Netherlands in Indonesia or of Germany in South-West Africa, classical military techniques were conjoined with punitive practices targeting civilians: pursuit and capture, looting and sacking of villages, coercion, mutilation, humiliation, and slaughter.

This regime of power has also provided another important toolbox in the history of the police.

''That combination of collective dragnet and manhunt replicates the counter-insurrectional and colonial logic which prevailed during the Battle of Algiers. It consists of waging a kind of police warfare against a whole segment of the population considered undesirable because they constitute a favourable milieu for the proliferation of an internal threat to society. ''

Continuity among high officials

Via the circulation of high state officials through imperial situations at home and abroad, a veritable transmission of colonial know was implemented. Thus, after his experience with counter-guerilla warfare in Spain, Marshall Bugeaud was given the task of putting down the Parisian insurrection of 1834, then of crushing Abdelkader’s Algerian resistance in 1836. In his book La Guerre des rues et des maisons he theorised the necessity for adapting colonial counter-guerilla warfare to the repression of workers’ revolts in mainland France.

As for prefect Maurice Papon, after having organised the deportation of Jews from Bordeaux under the German Occupation, he was put in charge of the sub-directorate for Algeria at the Ministry of Interior Affairs in 1945. Reputed for his handling of counter-insurrectional activities as a super-prefect in Algeria during the war of liberation, he was appointed prefect of the Paris police in 1958 to “put down North-African subversion”. He brought to mainland France a doctrine, personnel, ideas and practices derived from colonial warfare, and later supervised the massacre of protestors on 17 October 1961, in keeping with the repressive model used against the December 1960 grassroots demonstrations in Algeria. He remained police prefect until 1967.

Pierre Bolotte got his training in colonial “pacification” in Indochina early in the fifties. He became director of the office of the Prefect of Algiers at the beginning of the war for independence. He thought up the idea of police patrols “left to their own devices” in order to canvas “difficult neighbourhoods”. After doing his bit for repression during the Battle of Algiers in 1957, he was made the prefect of Guadeloupe where he again used counter-insurrectional methods in massacring the May 1967 social revolt. Appointed in 1969 to the prefecture of a newly created department, the Seine-Saint-Denis, he combined his colonial know-how with that of the brigades formerly assigned to policing immigrant labourers to create a specifically suburban force: the Brigade anti-criminalité (BAC).

Political police for colonised peoples

We may speak of an endo-colonial genealogy to describe the persistence of colonial thinking in-side imperial homelands. The history of the BAC shows that this continuity is also part and parcel of the itinerary of police officers at the lowest echelon. Indeed, the BAC is heir to the Brigade Nord-Africaine (BNA), a unit assigned to the surveillance, control and repression of Arab workers in the interwar years. In particular, the BNA recruited its personnel from among colonial civil servants in Algeria. It covered the “Muslim neighbourhoods”, conducting raids and sweeps and applying methods used for keeping beggars, homeless people, and prostitutes in line.

The BNA was disbanded at the Liberation (1945) on account of its explicitly racist connotation, but as early as 1953, the prefecture of police set up another unit of colonial inspiration called the Brigade des agressions et des violences (BAV), specialising in a so-called “North-African criminality”. Patterned after the former BNA, the BAV rehired some of its former officers who brought their obsession with the concept of flagrante delicto.

During the Algerian war of liberation, the BAV developed into political police for the colonised inhabitants of the mainland: “In our own way, with a revolver in one hand and the code of criminal procedure in the other we were waging the same war that our army was trying to win in Algeria” writes Roger Le Taillantier, former member of the BAC.

Sociologist Abdelmalek Sayad has shown how the continental shantytown police also helped import the techniques used in Algeria. Proxy forces known as “harkis”, “sanitary” and “social” police units and “shock brigades” carried out, under the supervision of police prefect Maurice Papon, the monitoring and repression of inhabitants in keeping with a pattern like that used during the Battle of Algiers.

At the beginning of the seventies, the former officers of the BAV recycled their know-how by incorporating their new endo-colonial units, the Brigades de surveillance de nuit (BSN), genuine prototypes of the BAC created by prefect Pierre Bolotte. They were optimised to catch offenders in the act (flagrante delicto) in immigrant neighbourhoods where unemployment and poverty were rife. They were conceived to be proactive, i.e., capable of creating the conditions for their own activity in accordance with that term borrowed from the vocabulary of company management. They were soon seen to be especially productive in terms of cases and hence very cost-effective under the “number policy”, so fashionable in the new neo-liberal society.


“The war in Algeria isn’t over!”

These continuities and rearrangements organised the imaginations and techniques of the police patrolling French working-class estates in the seventies and eighties. In November 1972, an officer named Robert Marquet shot dead Mohamed Daab, an Algerian chauffeur, inside the Versailles police station. Having joined the gendarmerie under the occupation and later a member of the CRS during the entire war in Algeria, he shouted “I’m killing you filthy race, I’m killing you”.

The Mouvement des travailleurs arabes (MTA) took the opportunity to declare that there existed “in France and in Europe, colonised subjects: immigrant workers.” In 1973, gendarmes in Fresnes, trying to find a 14-year-old boy, came upon his 8-year-old sister, Malika Yazid. One of them locked himself into a room with her for “interrogation” to get “information” about the whereabouts of her brother. She came out in a coma and died shortly afterwards. 

In October 1974, during the trial of 12 officers charged with having trashed the home of a Paris Algerian two years before, it was revealed that they had threatened him in these terms: “The war in Algeria isn’t over. We’re going to take you to Verrières woods and gun you down”.

More recently, to “secure” a working-class estate in 2005, a brigadier major mustered his troops by shouting: “We lost the war in Algeria. Forty years ago, we dropped our pants. We’re not going to drop them again today. No prisoners, bash their heads in!” Two Turks were badly beaten. As recently as April 2020, a police officer in the department of Hauts-de-Seine could joke about an Egyptian who had wound up in the Seine after they had finished with him: “He couldn’t swim, wogs like him don’t know how to swim.”,

Another example of this endo-colonial security order: French imperialism has combined, on its home territory, discriminatory and segregationist practises bequeathed by the colonial period. These inequalities structure areas like employment, housing, schooling, medical care, the media, the administration as well as policing, at the borders and in prisons.

The “colonial nature of power” in the words of Peruvian sociologist Anibal Qijano, is especially visible in this reproduction of a social apartheid.

It is also to be observed through the repression of social revolts organised in reaction to police crimes. In Toulouse in 1998, in Dammarie-les-Lys in 1997, 2002 and 2012, in Clichy-sous-Bois in 2005, in Villiers-le-Bel in 2007 and in several towns in France during the 2020 Covid-19 lockdown, the same pattern could be seen: cordon off and control a working-class neighbourhood by surrounding it with stationary units, then sending in special units to capture so-called suspects.

That combination of collective dragnet and manhunt replicates the counter-insurrectional and colonial logic which prevailed during the Battle of Algiers. It consists of waging a kind of police warfare against a whole segment of the population considered undesirable because they constitute a favourable milieu for the proliferation of an internal threat to society. This imaginary construct gave rise to the “Bui-Trong scale of urban violence” which claimed at the turn of the new century to be able to detect the immanence of urban guerrilla based on minor anti-social behaviour patterns, just like the specialists of colonial counter-insurrection in the fifties.

It can still be observed today in the manifesto published by the union France Police calling for the creation of checkpoints in working-class quarters in keeping with the Israeli model of separation from the Palestinian territories.

The use of military equipment

British academic Mark Neocleous has analysed today’s notion of “security” as a globalisation of colonial “pacification”. He has detected a “twinning of the power of war and the power of police in the name of the construction of the liberal order”.

In France, along with the neoliberal restructuring of society, we have indeed witnessed a joint military/police hybridisation of equipment and weapons which borrow much from the colonial repertory. For example, toxic gases and mutilating grenades, the use of which against civilians was industrialised during the Algerian war of independence before being brought to mainland France, especially in May 1968. After their generalisation in working-class neighbourhoods, their use is now central to the police handling of social movements. The same is true of helicopters to monitor urban uprisings, a practice also inaugurated during the Battle of Algiers.

The joint military and police handling of social struggles have persisted in the colonised territories dubbed “la France d’outre-mer” (overseas France), especially during the Covid-19 sanitary crisis in the West Indies, but also during the referendum for the independence of the Kanak in 2021.

At the same time, neocolonial operations like Barkhane in the Sahel constitute important experiments for a gendarmerie which operates regularly on the homeland territory as well as for the soldiers who patrol the territory in the name of operations Vigipirate and Sentinelle.

This colonial type of policing has gone hand in glove with the multiplication of xenophobic and Islamophobic laws since the nineteen eighties. It has spread along with the build-up of anti-terrorism as a form of government. As Carl Schmitt observed, the Algerian war provided a found-ing experience for the Fifth Republic by targeting the Algerian “partisans” as “terrorists” and by placing at the core of its judicial system supposedly exceptional measures like the state of emergency.

With the declaration of a state of emergency in 2015 followed by its normalisation in the law of the land, police measures of surveillance, pursuit and capture have been systematically turned against Muslim men and women, legally restoring an emergency regime characteristic of colonial rule. With its obsessional focus on the figure of the Arabo-Muslim as the enemy from within, this emergency regime has been continually reinforced through a multiplication of prohibition proceedings aimed at Muslim religious and cultural associations during Emmanuel Macron’s first term of office.

Mathieu Rigouste is an independent researcher in social sciences and the author of The Enemy Within: A Colonial and Military Genealogy of Security Directives in Contemporary France (La Decouverte, 2009) and Un seul héros le peuple. La contre-insurrection mise en échec par les soulèvements populaires de décembre 1960, PMN Editions, Paris, 2020.

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This article was originally published by our partners at Orient XXI

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