France is proposing to give all local cops guns

Armed and ready.
Armed and ready.
Image: REUTERS/Regis Duvignau
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French authorities identified 78 attempted terror attacks between October 2013 and March 2018 on home soil. Understandably, this has affected how the country views its national security, with implications for those charged with protecting it.

Earlier this year, French interior minister Gérard Collomb launched a parliamentary commission (link in French) to find ways to support security forces and municipal police, who are overwhelmed with the rise in crime (link in French) and increasingly suffer from mental health problems (link in French) linked to the danger associated with their jobs. The members of parliament in charge of the commission, Jean-Michel Fauvergue and Alice Thourot, released a report yesterday with more than 70 recommendations, of which the most eye-catching is to make firearms mandatory for all municipal police officers.

The municipal police are the local police force for towns and smaller cities in France, and fall under the authority of local mayors. Their main mission is to maintain public safety and resolve minor conflicts, but they have to appeal to the national police in more dangerous situations.

The proposal to arm all local cops is a significant departure for France. The law currently states that municipal police shouldn’t carry guns unless a mayor specifically requests it. According to Le Figaro, just under half of municipal cops currently carry a handgun, up from a quarter just 10 years ago (link in French).

The increased militarization of local police in France is directly linked to the increased threat of terror attacks in the country. In January 2015, after the attack on satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, the government gave local police in municipalities nearly 4,000 revolvers (link in French) and, in 2016, passed a decree allowing mayors to equip local police with 9mm semi-automatic pistols. Meanwhile, the French military deployed more than 10,000 soldiers around the country, in what is known as Operation Sentinelle—the French military’s largest operational deployment (link in French). It has become common to see soldiers carrying machine guns near major tourist sites, or along the check-in lines at Charles de Gaulle airport, something that would have been unthinkable not that long ago.

Now, local police officers could also be armed. Research shows that doesn’t necessarily make people safer: In the United States, the increasing militarization of law enforcement—as measured by acquisitions of unused military equipment—is associated with more civilian deaths.

France and the United States do not have the same relationship to guns. Although France has a relatively high rate of gun ownership, gun-related deaths are rare, and there is no constitutionally guaranteed right to bear arms. But the proliferation of lethal weapons in the hands of local police officers has some observers worried. NGOs like The Human Rights League of France have come out against the report (link in French). Despite that opposition, unions representing France’s security forces, as well as many politicians from president Emmanuel Macron’s party, have come out in favor of the proposal.