PARIS — France’s stretched police force has had to contend with two militant attacks in a year and regular street protests, and now it faces the task of keeping millions of soccer fans safe when the country hosts the Euro 2016 tournament next month.
The French force of police and gendarmes numbers almost 200,000, having suffered around 13,000 job cuts since 2007 as the government sought to reduce public spending.
Even before the Islamic State attacks on Paris in November, and the ensuing national state of emergency that increased their duties, officers had racked up a backlog of 20 million hours in overtime, equivalent to three weeks each.
They are entitled to claim an hour of holiday for every hour of overtime worked, but there is little prospect of them being able to do so any time soon.
They must police the June 10-July 10 Euro 2016, when about 2.5 million people are due to attend matches in 10 stadiums across the country and about 7.5 million are expected to converge on “fan zones” in cities, we well as the annual Tour de France cycling race which runs through most of July.
“They are being asked to do a lot in the state of the emergency and it’s clear that if we continue like this by the end of the year we’ll start seeing people fall sick and get depressed,” Denis Jacob, Secretary General of the Alternative police union told Reuters.
“We are human at the end of the day.”
The events also come at a time of civil unrest ahead of next year’s presidential elections that has seen demonstrations against a labour reform law spill over into violence on a weekly basis this year.
Since the protests began two months ago, several hundred police have been injured in clashes, often with hooded youths hurling stones and petrol bombs. Protest organisers have accused security forces of heavy-handed policing.
Police unions have called for officers to stage a nationwide demonstration on Wednesday to highlight their strained conditions and also the rise in anti-police rhetoric from protest groups in recent weeks.
They say they are receiving a rising number of calls from officers complaining of the stresses they face and that ahead of next month’s tournament there is no capacity or plan in place to give them respite.
One officer, who was part of a Gendarmerie Mobile unit parked outside the lower house of parliament in Paris last week, said he was exhausted after being constantly moved from one event or incident to another over the past two years. He said he did not want to be named because he feared a public backlash.
The government acknowledges the strain placed on police. “I salute the commitment of our security forces, especially the police and gendarmes, who some seem to forget the sacrifices and responsibilities that weigh on their shoulders at the moment,” Prime Minister Manuel Valls told lawmakers on May 12.
Forces have been given new equipment and the government is trying to alleviate some of the staff burden. It has promised 9,000 new police recruits, with around 800 of them due to join in June, even though these will need time to gain experience.
STATE OF EMERGENCY
The Nov. 13 attacks, the worst on French soil since World War Two, killed 130 people and included suicide bombings near the national football stadium. The killings, which came 10 months after a militant attack on the Paris offices of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, forced the Socialist government to push for tougher security measures.
The measures include a state of emergency, which has seen a rise in house raids, street stop and searches, as well as arrests of suspected militants and those linked to them.
An officer who has been a member of the police’s anti-riot Compagnies Republicaines de Securite (CRS) for three years, said a typical eight to 10-hour day for him varied between foot patrol missions around sensitive sites such as train stations, to crowd-control duty during street demonstrations.
The officer said he did not want to be named because he feared a public backlash. He said it was rare that the prerequisite 11 hours recuperation time between shifts was met and that days off were often postponed, leaving little time to recover from a physical and emotional workday.
Jean Krakowiecki, President of the France-based Research Institute for Stress, told Reuters the accumulated fatigue in the police force was beginning to have an impact.
“We could see uncontrollable violence, depressions followed by suicide, divorces, lives completely destroyed,” he said. “We’re already seeing police officers breaking down after seeing their colleagues injured or after getting hurt themselves.”
Some union officials point to the fact that a record 77 officers committed suicide in 2014 and 70 last year, up from 53 in 2010.
In a reminder of the challenges facing security forces, a fake bomb left behind after a training exercise at Manchester United’s stadium in Britain forced the evacution of the 75,000-seater ground and the abandonment of a match at the weekend. It was the first time in 24 years that an English Premier League match had been abandoned on security grounds.
French government officials say all measures are in place to ensure Euro 2016 runs smoothly.
“Events like this have to happen otherwise the terrorists will win,” Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said in an interview with French regional newspapers on May 13. “We’ve worked for months with the organisers and elected officials in the cities to ensure the highest level of security.”
Ultimately though, officials say, there just won’t be enough officers to police the tournament given that the priority remains securing sensitive locations against potential attacks.
Plans are afoot to ensure the French army, which has about 10,000 soldiers stationed across the country’s cities as part of anti-terrorism measures, will be handed more responsibility to protect sites during Euro 2016, relieving some police officers.
Tournament organisers are also drafting in between 10,000 to 15,000 security staff.
Security experts and police officials have said the fan zones will be the biggest challenge.
French employment authorities have approached more than 10,000 unemployed security agents to staff these areas. An emergency 40-hour course to replace the traditional 100-hour training was set up two weeks ago.
“We’re in the final countdown,” Ziad Khoury, head of security for Euro 2016 told Reuters. “We’re not stressed. The key is to remain calm and organize things well. Everyone is committed and it’s a window to show our know-how on managing big events and our security. It’s positive for our country.”