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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The Shooting at Chartres, 1935

On 21 June 2013, I spoke at the Maison Francaise d’Oxford during a conference organised by Alison Carrol (Brunel) and Ludivine Broch (Birkbeck/EUI), titled ‘A Century Later: New Approaches to French History, 1914-1945′.

My paper concerned an incident of political violence at Chartres in January 1935.   On 20 January, the Jeunesses Patriotes (JP), an extreme right-wing paramilitary group, held a meeting in the town of Chartres, 60 miles south west of Paris.   The announcement of the meeting in Chartres, and the fact that JP leader Pierre Taittinger himself was scheduled to speak, caused a stir among local left wingers.  A counter-demonstration was quickly organised.  Several hundred local JPs attended the meeting, reinforced by four coachloads of activists from Paris.  Meanwhile, over 1000 counter-demonstrators attended their own meeting before making for the square in front of the meeting venue.  The JP meeting passed off without incident.  But violence flared as the leaguers returned to their coaches and took the road back to Paris.  JP activists, believing themselves to be under attack from communists on the roadside, opened fire from the coaches, and a passer-by was shot in the foot.  The communists responded with a hail of bricks, stones and bottles.  On the road back to Paris police stopped and searched the vehicles.  They found a large number of rubber and wooden truncheons, clubs, knuckledusters, and rubber helmets – but no revolvers.  Following conflicting witness statements from both sides, police were unable to identify the aggressor and the case was ultimately dismissed.


A ‘fatherly punishment’: An example of police violence against women

In a recent seminar with my final year undergraduates, we discussed a chapter from Lynne Taylor’s excellent Between Resistance and Collaboration: Popular Protest in Northern France 1940-1945 (2000).  Taylor’s book examines the variety of ways in which French citizens in the Occupied North of wartime France could express dissatisfaction with, or even defy, the authorities.

The chapter under discussion concerned ‘food riots’ – demonstrations in which women, usually accompanied by their children, would march to the local town hall to demand improved rations.  More often than not, it seems, such demands were satisfied.  In class, we discussed whether the gender of the demonstrators had influenced this outcome.  The ‘rioters’ seem to have drawn some form of moral legitimacy from their status as mothers.  We should bear in mind, too, that their demands did not represent an overt challenge to the French or German authorities. But did the fact that the crowd was made up of women stay the hand of a police force that may have acted differently against men?

This question reminded me of the memoirs of Georges Ballyot (Un flic dans la tourmente.  Souvenirs (1937-1944) (Les Presses Bretonnes Saint-Brieuc, 1992). Ballyot became police superintendent of the 15th arrondissement of Paris in February 1937.  Ballyot’s souvenirs refer to a strike of cousettes in 1938.  Their union had organised a meeting at the Winter Velodrome in Paris, at which about 4,000 women were present.  Ballyot claimed that this was the first time the police had come face-to-face with a large group of women.  Officers therefore had no idea what to expect from such a crowd, which was allegedly in a state of agitation.

Following the close of the meeting, the first women to leave the venue were wives and mothers.  These strikers headed straight for the metro and home, doubtless (thought Ballyot) with a meal to prepare for their husbands and children.

Next to exit were the younger girls, excited by the incendiary speeches they had heard.  As the girls stopped to talk with each other, they apparently caused an obstruction at the exits and on the pavements outside the Velodrome.  Police attempted to move them along by raising their voice, but to no avail.  An officer took the arm of a ‘screaming Amazonian’, who shouted ‘He’s feeling me up…pig…’.  Ballyot’s recollection of what happened next is worth quoting:

‘…the officer, probably a father, without losing his cool, administered to the agitated woman a masterful couple of slaps…’

The girl looked ashamed for having insulted the officer.  She fled, sobbing.  Ballyot called this a ‘punishment of a pater familias’.

The story reminds us that when investigating violence we must take into account the prevailing cultural context.  Violence which might seem unjustified and abhorrent to the modern observer was perfectly rational (and ‘normal’) according to past understandings of ‘correct’ behaviour.  Such understandings both permitted and constrained violent action.  Extreme violence against the female strikers would have been condemned.  Instead, the violence of the policeman was considered a paternalistic punishment – a justifiable corrective – to a woman who had transgressed the boundaries of acceptable feminine behaviour.



Investigating political violence: ‘Physical’ sources



A selection of canes, clubs, truncheons and knives at the Museum of the Police, Paris.

In December I took part in the Swansea European History Research Workshop.  The workshop provides an informal setting for staff and postgraduates in the department to discuss their current and future research.  It allows all those involved in Swansea’s history research community to exchange comments and ideas on each other’s work.  Past workshops have concerned policing in Mussolini’s Italy and the memory of 1968.

My session was entitled ‘Investigating Political Violence in Interwar France’.  Rather than presenting specific outcomes of my research so far, I spoke to colleagues and students about methods for investigating violence.  In particular, I was keen to tell colleagues and students about a discovery I made during the summer spent researching in Paris.

This discovery concerned the ‘physical’ nature of my sources.  My project on political violence relies in the main on archival documents and newspapers from the period.  These sources can provide useful information, such as the details of an incident and the statements of witnesses recorded within hours of the violence.  Such documents are certainly useful given that my approach involves the detailed examination of violent incidents in order to interpret and explain the behaviour of protagonists.

Yet over the summer I began to question whether written sources such as archival papers were sufficient for understanding what were essentially physical acts.  This thinking was in part informed by two French historians of the First World War, Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker.  In their study of battlefield violence, Audoin-Rouzeau and Becker have argued that, when it comes to violence, historians are too often cut off from the physical nature of their object of study.  A historian might know the caliber of a firearm, how many were produced and how this affected a battle – but the historian is likely less familiar with the feel of a weapon, its weight, how it operates and the damage it can inflict.  Consequently, when it comes to weapons, ‘tactile contact is not a superfluous historical experience.’[Audoin-Rouzeau and Becker, 14-18: Understanding the Great War, p.19]

How might this approach inform my own research?  While working in the archives of the Prefecture of Police in Paris, I decided to visit the museum there.  The museum holds a collection of weapons seized by police. During my visit, I saw a collection of weapons including firearms, clubs and truncheons, knives and knuckledusters.  Seeing these weapons changed the way I understood the violence I had read about in the archives.  For example, I had consulted many reports about political activists who suffered gunshot wounds.  More often than not, these victims survived the injury- it seemed that only a shot to the heart could kill.  When I saw the revolver on display in the museum, the first thing that struck me was its size – it was small, about the size of the palm of my hand.  The size of a weapon was an important consideration to political groups:  police could only stop and search a suspect if they could see the weapon.  The size of the revolver meant it was ideal for being concealed, yet it was perhaps not as lethal (or accurate) as I had initially assumed it should be.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Revolver circa. 1890-1914.

Of course, at the museum I was not allowed to handle a weapon.  Yet the visit taught me that physical encounters with sources are far from useless.  I was prompted to ask new questions of my research.   Did practical considerations, such as concealment, inform the choice of weapon, or were smaller, non-lethal arms simply intended to intimidate?  Did groups who employed such small weapons really intend to kill?

I thank the staff and postgraduate students at Swansea for their comments.  I thank the staff of the Museum of Police in Paris for their assistance.