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Is French police brutality a myth?

Riot police walk towards demonstrators in Paris. Credit: Getty

July 4, 2023 - 2:00pm

Since Nahel Merzouk was fatally shot by a police officer, sparking France’s worst riots since 2005, various commentators have claimed that the French police are unusually violent — and that this helps to explain the turbulent reaction. In the face of these claims, it is worth looking at what the data says.

“How the killing of a teen fits into France’s history of police brutality” runs the title of an article in the Washington Post. “French policing has a tendency to violence,” claims Jon Henley in the Guardian. “French cops have gotten more heavy-handed than anywhere else in Europe,” argues Michele Barbero in Foreign Policy. Yet aside from a few ad hoc figures, none of these articles presents supporting data. 

To back up the claim that French police officers are unusually violent, one would need to show that they injure or kill more people than their counterparts in other, similar countries. Unfortunately, there is no comparative database on police use of force — as there is for, say, homicide. One must therefore track down data from individual governments’ websites. This is no easy feat, given the number of languages spoken in Europe.

Another issue is that countries may define police violence differently. For example, England and Wales records deaths “in or following police custody”, including those which result from “injuries or other medical problems that are identified or that develop while a person is in custody”. It’s not clear that these are cases of police violence, per se. 

To evaluate whether French officers are, in fact, unusually violent, I obtained data on the number of people fatally shot by police from seven Western countries: France, the Netherlands, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US.

The French government has only been tracking police use of force since 2018, and only for the years 2019–2021 does it provide a breakdown of deaths “on the occasion of a police mission” by cause. Hence I obtained the number of fatal police shootings in each country over the same three-year period (deaths by taser were included). After dividing each figure by three, I calculated the rate per 10 million people. The results are shown below. 

Of these seven countries, France has the second lowest rate of fatal police shootings at 2 per 10 million people. There is therefore no evidence that the French police are unusually violent. Of course, it is plausible that if I’d been able to obtain data for other European countries, France might have come slightly higher in the rankings. But even then, it’s clearly not an outlier on the continent. 

What’s more, countries like Australia, New Zealand and Canada are not known for their rioting. Yet they all have higher rates of fatal police shootings than France. (Even the French-speaking province of Quebec has a much higher rate.) It’s therefore questionable whether “police brutality” is what explains the forceful reaction to Merzouk’s death.

Perhaps French police use more non-lethal force than their counterparts in other countries? This is much harder to evaluate. And even if they do, it could be an effect rather than a cause of public unrest: we all know that the French protest more than most European nations. There is little basis for claiming that French police are unusually violent, and it’s irresponsible to make such a claim without supporting data. 

This article previously gave the French rate of fatal police shootings as 1.4 per 10 million people. It was corrected on 5th July 2023.


Noah Carl is an independent researcher and writer.

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Marcus Leach
Marcus Leach
9 months ago

Imagine being a police officer who has to deal with these people on a daily basis. If a police officer wasn’t “racist” to start with, how long would it be before the daily business of dealing with the drug gangs, gang violence, the appalling number of other serious crimes and being assaulted and insulted in these self-separated colonies , made one not particularly favourable and understanding to these people. Rather than blaming “racism” for the way the police approach these people, I would suggest the behaviour of police reflects the behaviour of the people they are thanklessly charged with policing.
After George Floyd’s excited delirium heart attack, and the grotesque miscarriage of justice in which a police officer following proper procedure was sacrificed to the mob, we had a chance to see what happens when the police are told to back away from policing these people and prosecutors stop prosecuting. The academics assured us that this would improve the lot of these communities. Instead it has led to shameless mass theft and a large increase in murder, violence, drugs and other serious crimes.
When Theresa May had the bright idea of putting an end to stop and search that disproportionally targeted blacks because the academics said it was racist targeting, everyone knows what happened: stabbings and deaths increased precipitously.
The academics ensconced in their cosy university office pontificating about what’s happening on the ground because they have studied a pile of data, and who chastise those who have to deal with these feral people, should be forced to go along with the police for six months and see the reality close up. At the end all but the most resolute ideologue would have a much less understanding and benevolent attitude to these supposed “victims”.

Last edited 9 months ago by Marcus Leach
Simon Denis
Simon Denis
9 months ago
Reply to  Marcus Leach

Very well said. I should love to see some malignant, venomous, spineless academic of the left trying to reason with an out of control Algerian drug runner; or attempting to calm a dispute between violent Moroccan teens; or endeavouring to rescue some cornered victim of gang terror. Ten to one they would make common cause with the crooks and cheer them on in their abominations, before hot-footing it back to leafy privilege land as fast as their moccasins could carry them. With any luck they might get a salutary pasting themselves.

Marcus Leach
Marcus Leach
9 months ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

The absurdity of people whose world comprises “safe spaces”, policies against “microaggressions” and bans people whose opinions might make undergraduates feel hurty, judging police officers who have to deal every day with feral, criminal scum

Marcus Leach
Marcus Leach
9 months ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

The absurdity of people whose world comprises “safe spaces”, policies against “microaggressions” and banning people whose opinions might make undergraduates feel hurty, judging police officers who have to deal every day with a constant threat of real violence from feral colonists.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
9 months ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

Back in the 70s there was a left wing academic in the US who did join the police and his perspective changed very quickly

Marcus Leach
Marcus Leach
9 months ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

The absurdity of people whose world comprises “safe spaces”, policies against “microaggressions” and bans people whose opinions might make undergraduates feel hurty, judging police officers who have to deal every day with feral, criminal scum

Marcus Leach
Marcus Leach
9 months ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

The absurdity of people whose world comprises “safe spaces”, policies against “microaggressions” and banning people whose opinions might make undergraduates feel hurty, judging police officers who have to deal every day with a constant threat of real violence from feral colonists.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
ER
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
9 months ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

Back in the 70s there was a left wing academic in the US who did join the police and his perspective changed very quickly

Seb Dakin
Seb Dakin
9 months ago
Reply to  Marcus Leach

It was heartwarming to see that donations to the policeman currently accused are running at five times those to the unfortunate youth who felt that the law didn’t apply to him. Maybe weathervane politicians will take note which way the wind blows, and not seek to jump too quickly on the anti-police bandwagons.
Hopefully a George-Floyd style politicised trial and miscarriage of justice can be avoided.

Ray Andrews
Ray Andrews
9 months ago
Reply to  Seb Dakin

On the one hand, people are not free to simply drive away when they don’t feel like being stopped by the cops. On the other hand, is immediate execution the right answer?

Ray Andrews
RA
Ray Andrews
9 months ago
Reply to  Seb Dakin

On the one hand, people are not free to simply drive away when they don’t feel like being stopped by the cops. On the other hand, is immediate execution the right answer?

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
ER
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
9 months ago
Reply to  Marcus Leach

You are wrong no one point
“The academics ensconced in their cosy university office pontificating about what’s happening on the ground because they have studied a pile of data”
What they do is decide on the outcome and then cherry pick an manipulate the dat to support their conclusions

Ray Andrews
Ray Andrews
9 months ago
Reply to  Marcus Leach

“a police officer following proper procedure was sacrificed to the mob”
No, sorry, he wasn’t, and several other officers testified against him. After Floyd stopped moving, the right thing — the simple common sense of it, too — was to check his vital signs. Any ordinary person could see that Floyd was either dying or dead and several ordinary people said so. Chauvin, even if not a murderer, was guilty of grossly negligent homicide. Lying about this only gives the barbarians ammunition, we should be honest about the fact that the cops sometimes f**k it up.

Simon Denis
SD
Simon Denis
9 months ago
Reply to  Marcus Leach

Very well said. I should love to see some malignant, venomous, spineless academic of the left trying to reason with an out of control Algerian drug runner; or attempting to calm a dispute between violent Moroccan teens; or endeavouring to rescue some cornered victim of gang terror. Ten to one they would make common cause with the crooks and cheer them on in their abominations, before hot-footing it back to leafy privilege land as fast as their moccasins could carry them. With any luck they might get a salutary pasting themselves.

Seb Dakin
Seb Dakin
9 months ago
Reply to  Marcus Leach

It was heartwarming to see that donations to the policeman currently accused are running at five times those to the unfortunate youth who felt that the law didn’t apply to him. Maybe weathervane politicians will take note which way the wind blows, and not seek to jump too quickly on the anti-police bandwagons.
Hopefully a George-Floyd style politicised trial and miscarriage of justice can be avoided.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
ER
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
9 months ago
Reply to  Marcus Leach

You are wrong no one point
“The academics ensconced in their cosy university office pontificating about what’s happening on the ground because they have studied a pile of data”
What they do is decide on the outcome and then cherry pick an manipulate the dat to support their conclusions

Ray Andrews
Ray Andrews
9 months ago
Reply to  Marcus Leach

“a police officer following proper procedure was sacrificed to the mob”
No, sorry, he wasn’t, and several other officers testified against him. After Floyd stopped moving, the right thing — the simple common sense of it, too — was to check his vital signs. Any ordinary person could see that Floyd was either dying or dead and several ordinary people said so. Chauvin, even if not a murderer, was guilty of grossly negligent homicide. Lying about this only gives the barbarians ammunition, we should be honest about the fact that the cops sometimes f**k it up.

Marcus Leach
ML
Marcus Leach
9 months ago

Imagine being a police officer who has to deal with these people on a daily basis. If a police officer wasn’t “racist” to start with, how long would it be before the daily business of dealing with the drug gangs, gang violence, the appalling number of other serious crimes and being assaulted and insulted in these self-separated colonies , made one not particularly favourable and understanding to these people. Rather than blaming “racism” for the way the police approach these people, I would suggest the behaviour of police reflects the behaviour of the people they are thanklessly charged with policing.
After George Floyd’s excited delirium heart attack, and the grotesque miscarriage of justice in which a police officer following proper procedure was sacrificed to the mob, we had a chance to see what happens when the police are told to back away from policing these people and prosecutors stop prosecuting. The academics assured us that this would improve the lot of these communities. Instead it has led to shameless mass theft and a large increase in murder, violence, drugs and other serious crimes.
When Theresa May had the bright idea of putting an end to stop and search that disproportionally targeted blacks because the academics said it was racist targeting, everyone knows what happened: stabbings and deaths increased precipitously.
The academics ensconced in their cosy university office pontificating about what’s happening on the ground because they have studied a pile of data, and who chastise those who have to deal with these feral people, should be forced to go along with the police for six months and see the reality close up. At the end all but the most resolute ideologue would have a much less understanding and benevolent attitude to these supposed “victims”.

Last edited 9 months ago by Marcus Leach
Jeremy Bray
JB
Jeremy Bray
9 months ago

Don’t try and confuse us with facts. Stick with the program. Stick with the narrative -everyone is much happier that way.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
9 months ago

Don’t try and confuse us with facts. Stick with the program. Stick with the narrative -everyone is much happier that way.

Peter Kwasi-Modo
Peter Kwasi-Modo
9 months ago

Great article: thanks! The French police would emerge even better from your analysis had you compared them to the Algerian or Moroccan police. That would be a more valid basis for a comparison, given the ethnicity and “culture” of the delinquents.

Last edited 9 months ago by Peter Kwasi-Modo
Peter Kwasi-Modo
PP
Peter Kwasi-Modo
9 months ago

Great article: thanks! The French police would emerge even better from your analysis had you compared them to the Algerian or Moroccan police. That would be a more valid basis for a comparison, given the ethnicity and “culture” of the delinquents.

Last edited 9 months ago by Peter Kwasi-Modo
Thor Albro
Thor Albro
9 months ago

Excellent data analysis, thank you. The same analysis applies to the so-called police war against blacks in the U.S., for which there is no actual statistical evidence.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
9 months ago
Reply to  Thor Albro

The “success” of the George Floyd protests riots has apparently provided a template for other countries’ leftist agitators. Perhaps the French politicians will also take a knee in deference to the demands from these looting occupiers. Cultural suicide might be contagious.

Last edited 9 months ago by Warren Trees
Warren Trees
WT
Warren Trees
9 months ago
Reply to  Thor Albro

The “success” of the George Floyd protests riots has apparently provided a template for other countries’ leftist agitators. Perhaps the French politicians will also take a knee in deference to the demands from these looting occupiers. Cultural suicide might be contagious.

Last edited 9 months ago by Warren Trees
Thor Albro
Thor Albro
9 months ago

Excellent data analysis, thank you. The same analysis applies to the so-called police war against blacks in the U.S., for which there is no actual statistical evidence.

Steve White
Steve White
9 months ago

The police are simply the last line of law against something that broke down in families and in society before it got to the point of needing police to stop it. Guess what… ideas have consequences. Ideas are behind actions, and actions create habits, and habits become in ingrained character of a person, and then when you have that in mass, you have a broken society, and eventually a broken nation. 
The riots are not simply about immigration. The police themselves are insisting on some legal protections, and have claimed that if they don’t get it, they will become part of the resistance at some point. That should wake people up. This might be the flashpoint, but there is a larger revolution brewing, and it’s happening all over the EU. People are sick of governments, corporations, NGOs, and corrupt unelected bureaucrats using them for their own gain, while continually squeezing their own lives down to a digital serfdom with no good future for them or their children in sight. Narrative control only works for so long.

Warren Trees
WT
Warren Trees
9 months ago
Reply to  Steve White

…”but there is a larger revolution brewing,…”
That is the entire point of allowing the insanity of cultural suicide to persist. Martial law is the next step.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
9 months ago
Reply to  Steve White

…”but there is a larger revolution brewing,…”
That is the entire point of allowing the insanity of cultural suicide to persist. Martial law is the next step.

Steve White
Steve White
9 months ago

The police are simply the last line of law against something that broke down in families and in society before it got to the point of needing police to stop it. Guess what… ideas have consequences. Ideas are behind actions, and actions create habits, and habits become in ingrained character of a person, and then when you have that in mass, you have a broken society, and eventually a broken nation. 
The riots are not simply about immigration. The police themselves are insisting on some legal protections, and have claimed that if they don’t get it, they will become part of the resistance at some point. That should wake people up. This might be the flashpoint, but there is a larger revolution brewing, and it’s happening all over the EU. People are sick of governments, corporations, NGOs, and corrupt unelected bureaucrats using them for their own gain, while continually squeezing their own lives down to a digital serfdom with no good future for them or their children in sight. Narrative control only works for so long.

Michael Daniele
MD
Michael Daniele
9 months ago

It would be interesting to see that chart plotted against the # of police interactions, not just population. I recall a few years ago in the US there were 400 million such interactions. It’s a staggering number.

Milton Gibbon
MG
Milton Gibbon
9 months ago

What a horribly biased article, revolving around the author trying to exonerate the French police for who knows what reason by pointing to one measure which even he claims is not reliable.
Firstly, it might be churlish to point out that the USA isn’t a fair comparison due to the number of nutters and guns in the country – clearly no comparison to any country in the world other than war zones (sorry Americans, them’s the facts). Canada, NZ and Australia all have very sparsely populated rural areas where guns are used by people to defend their rights in the absence of a police presence, not comparable to France or other highly centralised European countries.
Secondly, the fact that France has a violent police force is similar to across Europe. Police forces on the continent have a more militaristic feel than those in the anglosphere and the idea of policing by consent is not the founding principle. It has been a footnote in news stories about protests in France with brief information given of the number of protestors who lost eyes/fingers due to police action (rubber bullets/battons/who knows?) which in this country would be considered a story in and of itself. Continental police forces have no compunction about cracking skulls and generally “roughing up” those they consider undesirable (tramps, protestors, holidaying Brits etc.) which would be all over the front pages if done here. This author isn’t living in the real world.

Marcus Leach
Marcus Leach
9 months ago
Reply to  Milton Gibbon

You go down to the front line in one of the banlieues and hug a hoodie. Once you wake up, wipe the blood off and work out how you are going to get home when all your possessions have been stolen, then perhaps you’ll think again about who is living in the real world.

Simon Denis
SD
Simon Denis
9 months ago
Reply to  Milton Gibbon

Bilge from start to finish. The snobbish excuse you offer for America about “nutters with guns” conflates responsible self defence with gang crime; worse, it wilfully forgets the violence and entitlement of the banlieus. In short, it instantiates the very vices it affects to condemn, being nothing but a prolonged attempt to squirm around the facts fairly stated in Noah Carl’s article.

Last edited 9 months ago by Simon Denis
Mangle Tangle
Mangle Tangle
9 months ago
Reply to  Milton Gibbon

I don’t think the author does say that the French police are fine, just that the data doesn’t support that contention. And the author does caveat that point about non-lethal violence. You’re being unfair to the author because he doesn’t parrot your angle.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
9 months ago
Reply to  Milton Gibbon

I seem to remember that most of the French populace once hailed the nutters with guns back in the mid 1940’s. If those gun loving yanks didn’t step in, the baguette would have been exchanged for pumpernickel, which doesn’t even fit under a Frenchman’s arm as comfortably!

Milton Gibbon
Milton Gibbon
9 months ago
Reply to  Milton Gibbon

Glad to see that none of the downvotes/commentors argue with the facts I put forward. ML: you make my point – that the French police don’t “go down to the frontline” is the problem. They signed up for it. SD: where would you rather live, in the banlieues in France or in a bad neighbourhood in America? the violence you refer to is incomparable in scale. MT: a fair comment but you need to read the third paragraph – there is no good data. Even the author admits this and goes on to use the data he has just criticised as the thrust of his argument!

Marcus Leach
Marcus Leach
9 months ago
Reply to  Milton Gibbon

You go down to the front line in one of the banlieues and hug a hoodie. Once you wake up, wipe the blood off and work out how you are going to get home when all your possessions have been stolen, then perhaps you’ll think again about who is living in the real world.

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
9 months ago
Reply to  Milton Gibbon

Bilge from start to finish. The snobbish excuse you offer for America about “nutters with guns” conflates responsible self defence with gang crime; worse, it wilfully forgets the violence and entitlement of the banlieus. In short, it instantiates the very vices it affects to condemn, being nothing but a prolonged attempt to squirm around the facts fairly stated in Noah Carl’s article.

Last edited 9 months ago by Simon Denis
Mangle Tangle
MT
Mangle Tangle
9 months ago
Reply to  Milton Gibbon

I don’t think the author does say that the French police are fine, just that the data doesn’t support that contention. And the author does caveat that point about non-lethal violence. You’re being unfair to the author because he doesn’t parrot your angle.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
9 months ago
Reply to  Milton Gibbon

I seem to remember that most of the French populace once hailed the nutters with guns back in the mid 1940’s. If those gun loving yanks didn’t step in, the baguette would have been exchanged for pumpernickel, which doesn’t even fit under a Frenchman’s arm as comfortably!

Milton Gibbon
Milton Gibbon
9 months ago
Reply to  Milton Gibbon

Glad to see that none of the downvotes/commentors argue with the facts I put forward. ML: you make my point – that the French police don’t “go down to the frontline” is the problem. They signed up for it. SD: where would you rather live, in the banlieues in France or in a bad neighbourhood in America? the violence you refer to is incomparable in scale. MT: a fair comment but you need to read the third paragraph – there is no good data. Even the author admits this and goes on to use the data he has just criticised as the thrust of his argument!

Milton Gibbon
Milton Gibbon
9 months ago

What a horribly biased article, revolving around the author trying to exonerate the French police for who knows what reason by pointing to one measure which even he claims is not reliable.
Firstly, it might be churlish to point out that the USA isn’t a fair comparison due to the number of nutters and guns in the country – clearly no comparison to any country in the world other than war zones (sorry Americans, them’s the facts). Canada, NZ and Australia all have very sparsely populated rural areas where guns are used by people to defend their rights in the absence of a police presence, not comparable to France or other highly centralised European countries.
Secondly, the fact that France has a violent police force is similar to across Europe. Police forces on the continent have a more militaristic feel than those in the anglosphere and the idea of policing by consent is not the founding principle. It has been a footnote in news stories about protests in France with brief information given of the number of protestors who lost eyes/fingers due to police action (rubber bullets/battons/who knows?) which in this country would be considered a story in and of itself. Continental police forces have no compunction about cracking skulls and generally “roughing up” those they consider undesirable (tramps, protestors, holidaying Brits etc.) which would be all over the front pages if done here. This author isn’t living in the real world.