PARIS (AP) — Thousands of French police officers took part in a huge demonstration outside parliament Wednesday to press for a law that protects the protectors who are feeling vulnerable to attacks, angry and useless.
The rally by security forces represented a bold and unusual move for members of an institution that stresses duty and discretion. The protest drew civilian supporters and morphed into what looked like a campaign stop for politicians ahead of regional elections next month and a presidential race next year, with security a top concern.
Hard-line Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin showed up at the start, squeezing through a packed crowd of hundreds waving labor union flags. Representatives from the far-right National Rally and a multitude of other parties were expected to attend. The politicians clearly hope to send a message that security matters and police officers, a considerable voting pool, are their friends.
“You must help us, Mr. Minister,” an officer said with emotion to Darmanin.
“Every morning when I awake, every night when I sleep, I think of you,” Darmanin said, adding that his presence at the protest was “normal" given his role as France's top cop.
Police unions gave notice ahead of the rally that politicians would not be allowed to make speeches. “No one will confiscate the words of police or citizens,” said a statement by 10 unions holding the demonstration.
Organizers said about 35,000 people, both officers and members of the public, attended the rally, which spilled across a main boulevard to the Seine River.
With two officers killed in recent weeks - one in a terrorist attack and another by a suspected 19-year-old delinquent - and constant encounters with young people who throw objects and fireworks, police are angry.
“Paid to Serve, Not to Die” read a giant banner in front of the National Assembly, the lower chamber of parliament.
“We hope this is the starting point for real political action,” a ranking officer who belongs to the police chiefs' union, SCPN, said. Rallying in front of the French parliament is “to concentrate our anger where the laws are made. We've reached a point of no return,” said the officer, who identified himself only as Olivier B. because union officials, not the rank-and-file, typically make public statements.
Police are calling for a law that guarantees jail time for those who assault them and for a justice system that punishes the small-time offenders they arrest and re-arrest after courts set them free.
Polls show broad support for police, but critics cite instances of brutality, including a man who died this year after a beating. A group of organizations filed a lawsuit in January contending systemic racism in France's security forces.
Officers reject what they label as “police bashing,” saying that it undermines their work.
President Emmanuel Macron, who is expected to run for reelection in 2022, has put security high on his agenda. However, police want more than a list of promises, such as guaranteeing a 30-year prison sentence for anyone convicted of killing an officer.
A minute of silence was observed to honor police officers killed in the line of duty.
A drug squad officer, Eric Masson, was fatally shot two weeks ago while making a quick check at a dealers’ corner in Avignon at the end of his shift. The suspect is 19 years old. A police official was knifed to death April 23 by a suspected radical at her station's entrance in the town of Rambouillet.
Police complain that laws have not kept up with changes in society, and existing laws are often not applied by judges.
“The hammer of justice is made of clay. It doesn't strike,” Benoit Barret, the head of France's southern Provence region for the Alliance police union, said. “Police refuse to be doormats, be humiliated, outraged, aggressed,” Barret said.
Darmanin's presence at Wednesday's protest triggered a deluge of criticism for alleged political opportunism. The interior minister has made chasing down neighborhood drug dealers a priority.
Politicians attending police demonstrations “is not a problem, if they hear the message and take action,” said Enguerrand Bonnas, an Alliance official in Lyon. But he especially appreciated the support from French citizens.
“People shook our hands. That feels warmer than politicians,” Bonnas said.
Elaine Ganley, The Associated Press