Democracies Under Pressure. Authoritarianism, Repression, Struggles

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Law and Order in France: a Cocktail of Colonial Violence and Neoliberal Restructuring

, by RIGOUSTE Mathieu

Mathieu Rigouste’s work is essentially focussed on highlighting the colonial ideology that has shaped the French police force. Although it’s well known that France carried out violent repressive measures in Algeria during the Algerian Revolution, it’s less known that the same violence also took place in “mainland France”. Yet this is what defines the current stance of the French police towards the French population that has roots in the “Empire’s” former colonies, as illustrated by the massacre of between 40 and 100 Algerians in Paris on 17 October 1961.

France’s law and order system has several historical roots. My research is focussed on the restructuring of the police and security apparatus which has taken place alongside the neoliberal restructuring of contemporary capitalism: French imperialist society, and its system of control, surveillance and repression, systematically integrates methods and mechanisms which can be traced back to colonial and military contexts. Military-style management systems designed to control the colonised population were initially developed in Algeria – the biggest settler colony and experimentation site for such systems. Since 1830 these systems have been continually passed down and have influenced the restructuring of population control on France’s own soil, which involve, primarily, implementing these military tactics upon the people designated as the heirs of the indigenous Algerian population of the colonial era, i.e, mainly Arabs in Paris. Specific management approaches and violent police regimes were implemented upon colonised peoples in “mainland France”, involving coercion, humiliation, roundups, killings, and torture, all of which were the norm well before the Algerian War. In the 1930s, the North African Brigade (Brigade de surveillance des Nord-Africains – BNA) was created, a fundamentally racist police force in charge of monitoring French people with North African roots. Such approaches would be passed on. The continuity of the French state also means the continuity of staff, administrations and bureaucracies. As police units were restructured, certain narratives, fictions, ideologies, practices and systems continued to be disseminated.

Counter-insurgency: a history of targeting colonised peoples and anti-capitalists that continues today

On the day of 17 October 1961, all law enforcement staff (police officers, riot police and flying squad) had spent time in Algeria either for training purposes or on duty, as most available soldiers and police officers had been deployed there at some point during the war. Many police officers and gendarmes had waged war against the colonised people and appropriated the counter-insurgency model: the model of state terror. And then, the contingent, those who were “called to serve”, a whole generation of young men would be shaped (a minority of which would oppose it) by the Algerian War; all the psychological economy involved in this war, based on fear and cruelty, would be engrained in a whole generation that would then sit at the helm of France’s Fifth Republic. Maurice Papon, for instance, a specialist in purges, who was responsible for the deportation of Jews from Bordeaux, was, as could be expected, appointed super chief of police in Algeria, in charge of crushing the Algerian Revolution. He thus trained in counter-insurgency strategies and experimented with introducing military and colonial counter-insurgency tactics into the police and administration. He was fascinated by this doctrine, which focusses on capturing “the enemy within” as a means of pacifying the population. According to this doctrine, the guerrillero or the partisan is like a fish in water, the water being the general population; which is why the population as a whole must be targeted. This ideology and approach was to become a state doctrine and became hegemonic in French military thinking from 1956 onwards. From then on, the doctrine of “(counter) revolutionary war” fuelled the restructuring of the domestic defence strategy: in other words, great plans for a militarisation of French territory in the event of a Soviet invasion. This was, of course, going to sow seeds throughout the Fifth Republic, which was founded on a military coup that brought de Gaulle to power in 1958, including through all the ideological rhetoric that portrays Arabs and communists as the “enemy within”, who must be captured in order to protect France and the “free world”.

Even before the colonial period, the state itself was being built as a counter-revolutionary force: a machinery that would enable the dominant classes to shut down either the revolutionary movement or the time and space for war, so as to establish their domination. All states are thus built on counter-insurgency machinery. But with the advent of the modern nation state, capitalism and its imperialist version, counter-insurgency will itself take on an industrial, modern form. It will also become globalised, technologised, rationalised and evolve alongside technological systems.

During the last decades of his life, Maréchal Bugeaud, who was Governor General of Algeria between 1841 and 1847, maintained that he established a counter-insurgency doctrine that could be applied to the workers’ movement in mainland France. He also spent much time pointing out the supposed parallels between the 19th century revolutionary process in mainland France – what he called the “insurrections” – and the revolts in the French colonies. At the end of his life, he even wrote a book (which remained unpublished) entitled La guerre des rues et des maisons (The War of Streets and Houses) in which he suggests that his counter-insurgency method for war should be applied to the city, in mainland France, against the working classes. He expounds an architectural theory that intersects with the “Haussmanisation” [1] of French buildings, which essentially consists of applying the Industrial Revolution to the capitalist city. Military and colonial doctrines thus entered into the policing strategy as Haussmann sketched out the wide avenues that would enable the police or the army to stampede workers’ barricades.

With imperialist restructuring, the great powers of the Western world would constantly give each other reports and feedback on their experiences. There is evidence of this as early as 1917 after the Russian Revolution when the police and armies of the Western world produced reports and supplied each other with summaries of their experiences, and this continued throughout the 20th century. We know that special envoys from the Israeli army (and perhaps also the police) were in contact and were probably also trained at the Centre d’Instruction à la Pacification et à la contre-Guérilla (Pacification and Counter-Guerrilla Instruction Centre – CIPCG). French and Israeli counter-insurgency specialists were thus exchanging tactics on the most effective way to crush their respective internal enemies as early as the Algerian War. Revolutionary and counter-revolutionary texts were being constantly passed around.

We know, for example, that the Zapatistas regularly show and use the film La Bataille d’Alger, which makes sense given that the Mexican and French armies are close collaborators. The French police trained the Mexican police in crowd management and on how to use the weapons that France sold them just before the Mexican police killed teachers in Oaxaca in June 2016.

Restructuring the repressive machinery: the 1970s and police state capitalism

Today, France’s anti-crime units (Brigade Anti-Criminalité – BAC) embody this idea of police state capitalism fairly well in that they are the result of a fusion of endo-colonial police forces and neoliberal state restructuring. Established in the early seventies, these police forces draw on the staff, ideologies, toolboxes and practices of endo-colonial police forces (the North African Brigade – [BNA], which became the Aggression and Violence Prevention Brigade [Brigade Agression et Violence [BAV], which used colonial socio-racist methods and strategies on immigrant populations living in France). Because imperialist society has to assert over-domination over the racialised working classes and exploit them as much as possible – a specific police force was required. After 1945 and the hypocritical condemnation of the collaboration of the French police in exterminating European Jews, the Gaullist bourgeoisie invented “resistant France” and attempted to convince the world that this kind of racist policing had been tossed onto the garbage heap of history. But the same sorts of methods were being reproduced, often by the same people. This time it was called the Aggression and Violence Prevention Brigade: it was the same socio-racist machinery hidden behind the smoke and mirrors of a new name. Today’s “anti-crime” unit is yet another name, as is the “war on crime”, terms that are used to conceal social apartheid systems of production behind legalistic myths.

During a protest, a member of the police forces holds an LBD. Credit : © Felipe Barrientos (

Very early on in the 1970s – just after 1968 (because the leftist also featured among the “enemies within” as a new incarnation of the figure of the revolutionary always associated with the Fellagha) – the state decided that it needed modern police forces in working-class neighbourhoods to establish and enforce this new rational, optimised and neoliberal society. It was no coincidence the first area selected to undergo this experiment was Seine-Saint-Denis, [2] and in 1973, a former BAV officer was put in charge of policing the working-class areas of this department, running what was called an “anti-crime unit” (Brigade Anti-Criminalité – BAC). He would make good use of everything he’d learnt at the grandes écoles of the new society, i.e., what would soon be known as “neo-management”: implementing the same neoliberal restructuring on the state machinery that had first been implemented upon corporations. There was a new targets-focussed mentality in policing, what we now call a “results-driven policy”. The idea was to increase the output and the productivity of the policing machine. Getting results meant “cracking down” on as many individuals as possible – or getting as many “bâtons” (bars) as possible, i.e, ensuring a good “supply” (or “mises-à-disposition”, making individuals available to the law enforcement system, in the jargon) of cases to the system. This is known as “getting a deal”. It involves bringing someone in for questioning, handing the issue over to the police judiciaire [the criminal investigation division of the national police] and, if the issue is deemed serious enough to be referred to the District Attorney, the accused will go to court and to prison – this would constitute a “bâton” or a “win”. Careers are built on accumulating as many wins as possible, so a police chief who wants to “climb the ladder” has a vested interest in developing anti-crime units in their precinct. These units arrest many individuals as they work actively to catch people in the act. It is all based on a “proactive” approach: the police do nothing to stop the crime from happening, they oversee it, even encourage it, going as far as to suggest it outright or make it happen so that they can arrest the “offender” when they finally commit a crime. The anti-crime unit is thus an apparatus that relies heavily on creating the conditions that will allow its constant expansion. The easiest way to keep up the “supply” and fulfil this neoliberal mission is to arrest people who use cannabis for drug-related offences and undocumented immigrants for immigration-related offences. What’s the best way to find undocumented immigrants or people in possession of drugs? Arrest Black people and North Africans. Racial profiling is thus a tactic of anti-crime units: officers patrol working-class neighbourhoods in order to make arrests on people of colour.

After anti-crime units were established in the 1970s, they continued to be developed throughout the 1980s and early 90s, firstly with the Night Patrol Anti-Crime Units (BAC de Surveillance de Nuit – BSN). When Charles Pasqua (the most caricatural symbol of the Algerian War’s political, police and military mentality, whose political career was based on hunting down the “enemy within”) became Minister of the Interior, the use of counter-insurgency methods intensified and France’s law enforcement system was ramped up. It was Charles Pasqua who approved deploying anti-crime units in all of France’s cities. These units were equipped with a lot of gear and required an increasing amount of weapons – which came as good news for the security industry. Anti-crime units, for example, requested flash-balls fairly early on. They worked with arms manufacturers on new models, and it’s no coincidence that this is the type of ammunition that anti-crime units use most. The flash-ball weapon is used everyday in France’s working-class neighbourhoods. The same goes for tear gas. We typically see it used to control protests in city centres, but tear gas is used on a daily basis in working-class neighbourhoods.

The anti-crime unit therefore seems particularly representative of police state capitalism – both in terms of its brutality and its ultra-liberal, ultra-productive, ultra-optimised and ultra-aggressive aspect. It is also extremely angled to media hype: anti-crime officers put on a sort of show, inspired by what they see on TV... The system that was designed to dominate and crush working-class neighbourhoods is even used to control other social movements, such as those fighting France’s labour law reforms or the yellow vest movement. Generally speaking, anti-crime units are used to enter into crowds and capture and entrap individuals. These methods are increasingly combined with encirclement, confinement and constriction strategies, which usually involve the CRS police (Compagnies républicaines de sécurité – CRS), in charge of riot control, or the mobile gendarmes. The anti-crime unit is thus another example of the current rheostatic restructuring of everything: adaptability in the manner of the Toyota Production System, in other words, taking the most streamlined approach possible in order to meet demand instantaneously with the least possible stock and expense.

The 1970s was also the era when the capitalist city began to take shape. Urban planning played a key role in the restructuring of the police and security system. In the wake of over-accumulation crises, the capitalist city was restructured to accommodate masses of poor workers, concentrating them around capital accumulation centres. And in the working-class neighbourhoods or camps, the dominated and exploited constantly invented forms of self-organisation and empowerment, counterattack, cultures of disobedience and ways to throw off attempts to govern them. The state therefore needs both the constant presence of the police force, in charge of destroying the recurring forces of empowerment and survival – because in the end, people have no choice – and an urban planning strategy: these areas had to be segregated and invaded in order to destroy anything subversive that might emerge. But when aggressive police forces, such as anti-crime units, are deployed in working-class neighbourhoods, this produces police brutality, which in turn produces anger. Depending on the severity of revolts and repressive measures, as well as the way in which these have been covered by the media, city councils – in collaboration with the police and the media – are able to label certain working class neighbourhoods “unmanageable” or “irrecoverable”. This is a way to mobilise financial capital first and then industrial capital under the guise of “urban renewal”. Practically, this involves a restructuring of these neighbourhoods that can go as far as completely destroying them, pushing the poorest communities – or the most ungovernable – out to the fringes, and even completely out. Both the police and prison systems serve this purpose, but rent increases due to gentrification (expanded public transport systems that mean white collars take the place of working-class communities) also play a role. In the early 2000s, the French government invested heavily to support local authorities’ urban restructuring policies. This money was immediately pocketed by construction and security companies: once the police, the media, the prison and the city council had managed to “clear the way”, the urban replanning was done in partnership with construction firms as well as with the surveillance technology industry, the design industry – the cliques of neo-urbanism – advertising, retail; in short, a whole system of companies that live around this economy. As well as reinforcing social apartheid, the underlying logic is a form of internal colonisation by expanding the capitalist city and inventing new ways to control social life.

Social apartheid, violence and stigmatisation

Social apartheid involves keeping populations apart so that they don’t intersect. Mechanisms that oppress working-class neighbourhoods can be completely invisible to the rest of the population. Islam and violence are used as a pretext to stage dramatic police raids: everyone is told to get on the floor with guns pointed at them, tear gas may be used in apartments, sometimes people are beaten up. This leaves families with serious trauma. There have been accounts of police raids in the middle of the night for which children, the mother, the grandmother seek psychological help several months later. And the effect on school-drop out rates is tragic: after children experience so-called “anti-terrorist” military-style police raids in their homes, they lose interest in school and fall behind. House arrest is another form of violence these communities are subjected to. It’s difficult to grasp when you haven’t experienced it, but the monitoring system is extremely tough, as individuals under house arrest are required to regularly report to their supervisors. It should be highlighted that, following investigation, most of these cases amount to nothing. The vast majority of these house arrests are completely unfounded; a number of individuals have chosen to take legal action and won. What stands out in these cases is that many of these individuals are reported for being “serious practicing Muslims” or potentially “radicalised”. In other words, house arrests are based on random denunciations. These raids, house arrests and long, taxing lawsuits thus constitute severe acts of violence that ripple through these (primarily Muslim) families and are deeply exhausting. When people’s names are published in the press, suddenly a whole town sees you as a likely terrorist.

State of emergencies exacerbate social apartheid, Islamophobia and racial profiling – which is a convenient way for imperialist France to manage and control working class neighbourhoods.


[1Translator’s note: Haussmann was a French official chosen by Emperor Napoleon III to carry out a massive urban renewal programme of boulevards, parks and public works in Paris.

[2Translator’s note: A poor department in Paris’s outskirts with a high number of Black and North African immigrants.


This article is a summarised and adapted version of an interview by Léopold Lambert on 23 September 2016, published in The Funambulist 8 (November-December 2016): "Police".

Mathieu Rigouste is an independent social science researcher who works closely with social movements.