Police violence in interwar France

Police violence was of great concern to the ministers and civil servants of the French Third Republic – the democratic regime that governed France between 1870 and 1940.  In the early years of its existence, the Republic granted new rights to its citizens, notably the right to freedom of the press and the right to hold political meetings. Furthermore, the Republic, unlike its predecessor the Second Empire, tolerated civil and political demonstrations in the street (even if it did not legally sanction them).

Yet this new project to grant rights to the French was undermined by the gratuitous brutality of police officers, the majority of whom had served in the former imperial police force. Republican attempts to democratise the police force centred on training officers to respect citizens new rights and treat them accordingly.  Consequently, training manuals stressed that officers should act with self-control at all times; they should be polite in their dealings with the public; and they should resort to violence only as a last resort.

The French police.  At the top, the constable with his iconic white baton
The French police. At the top, the constable with his iconic white baton

I’ve selected a piece of evidence to illustrate the Republican directives on policing. It’s a circular from February 1926. It was sent by the prefect of the county of the Finistère to officers in charge of policing a Catholic demonstration in the town of Landernau :

‘At no time must the security service depart from the calmness and firmness that must drive it. Orders must be executed without brutality [and] with the concern to assure the freedom of movement and the maintenance of good order’.[i]

This was all very well, but contemporaries recognised that even during the interwar years (and despite, therefore, decades of training not to mention Republican schooling), police continued to perpetrate acts of unnecessary violence.

Police constables in 1939
Police constables in 1939

Even the mundane fulfillment of duties often saw officers commit unwarranted violence. Even minor scuffles in the street could see political activists beaten unconscious, while innocent bystanders could come in for a thrashing too. Back at the police station, the imperial practice of roughing up those men in custody was still current.

To illustrate this contrast between police training and practice, this second piece of evidence also comes from 1926, but three months later than the document above, in May.  It’s a report of a conversation overheard between two police officers in Paris. The officers were discussing a demonstration at which they had both been present earlier that day:

– ‘So, how did it go this morning?

– I was at Saint-Lazare, nothing happened.

– That’s not how it was at the rue de Rivoli… We had to charge. I pulled out all the stops; you should have seen how the blows rained down. I spotted one of them who had escaped me for an instant. But a moment later, I had him again and so, mate, I gave him a real hammering, every blow that I dealt him went ‘crack, crack’! He was bleeding; I guarantee you he learned something’.[ii]

Despite Republican attempts to educate officers, a culture of violent policing, which was perhaps a hangover from the Second Empire, remained stubbornly persistent.  My broader research suggests too that a small amount of police violence was ignored, and even condoned by the Republican state; thus if the Republic took steps to ensure that officers rarely fired on large crowds of people, it turned a blind eye to the regular thrashings doled out by officers.

[i] F7 13219 Le Préfet du Finistère à Monsieur le Ministre de l’Intérieur, Quimper, 25 Feb 1926

[ii] F713198 D’un correspondant, 10 May 1926



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