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French govt bends to keep police protecting, not protesting

December 20, 2018
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Riot police officers take position as demonstrators wearing yellow vests protest during a visit by French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian in Biarritz, southwestern France, Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2018. Yellow vest protesters occupied dozens of traffic roundabouts across France even as their movement for economic justice appeared to be losing momentum on the fifth straight weekend of protests. (AP Photo/Bob Edme)

PARIS (AP) — France’s frustrated police forces won a partial victory Thursday after demanding improved working conditions and back overtime from a government fearful the officers it depends on more than ever would start protesting on the streets they’ve been protecting.

A terrorist attack last week in Strasbourg, more than five weeks of increasingly violent anti-government protests and the stepped-up demands of the Christmas holidays pushed officials to the negotiating table as saber-rattling unions made clear they were fed up.

The unions called for a one-day work slowdown that was not observed at all police stations Wednesday, but the action managed to slow passenger check-ins at Paris’ two main airports. Above all, it showed authorities that police officers — who aren’t allowed to strike — have other ways to rebel.

The Interior Ministry announced “real advances” Thursday from its two days of meetings with three leading police unions, notably an agreement on long-sought salary increases. The government also agreed to make good on decades of unpaid overtime pay totaling nearly 275 million euros ($313 million.)

In addition, the ministry promised a “plan for deep transformation of the national police” to address a smoldering malaise the unions say resulted from officers feeling overworked, under-equipped and disrespected. Talks on compensation and work hours — perhaps the toughest part — are planned for January.

Unions blame difficult working conditions for a suicide rate among police that is 36 percent higher than for the general population, according to a Senate report. More than 30 police officers have taken their own lives in 2018, many of them with their service revolvers.

The rate is higher among gendarmes, who unlike police are part of the military. In the last known suicide, a gendarme took his life in November in the garden of the prime minister’s office.

The Senate report published in July on how to overcome the “malaise” makes clear that the daily routine of a police officer can mean contending with dilapidated equipment, rundown cars, filthy stations and an out-of-touch management.

The Union of Independent National Police ran an online photo contest for officers this year to highlight such problems. It yielded more than 700 images, with photo subjects such as police stations with cockroaches, holes in the walls and water leaks, as well as police cars driven for hundreds of thousands of kilometers. It was not possible to verify the authenticity of the photos.

Guillaume Lebeau, vice president of a group called Mobilization of Angry Police, said in a video that some police wear bicycle helmets on the job because there aren’t enough helmets designed for law enforcement.

With protests in overdrive in France in recent years, when terror attacks have multiplied, burnout is not uncommon, aggravated by work and by living conditions for some called into major cities, the Senate report said. It noted that it is not unusual for officers brought into Paris for duty to pile up in small rooms or to sleep in their cars.

Interior Minister Christophe Castaner vowed that things will change. He tweeted Thursday that equipment and buildings were part of a “first-of-a-kind effort for our security forces.” He also acknowledged that “unacceptable situations remain,” a reference to the unpaid overtime.

While the negotiating unions crowed about advances, a mysterious group of police officers organized plans on social networks for a Thursday night demonstration in front of a station on Paris’ Champs-Elysees Avenue. At that spot, police and gendarmes have confronted protesters with tear gas, water cannons and armored vehicles on multiple Saturdays since last month.

About 80 people wearing police arm bands, some emergency workers and others gathered for the peaceful demonstration to show they are still angry. Some sported yellow vests in solidarity with the anti-government protesters.

Like police, the yellow vest movement behind the recent protests is demanding improved buying power among its demands. Protesters sometimes hold up signs asking officers to back off because they share the same cause.

The movement, which started with anger over fuel price hikes, is named after the fluorescent vests that French motorists must carry for emergencies.

Nine people have died in protest-related incidents since mid-November, mainly at traffic roundabouts manned by protesters.

“We don’t have the means to be everywhere at the same time ... We have to make a choice and that’s not normal,” Lebeau of the Angry Police group said.

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