11 August 2011

Does Britain need a French-style CRS?

This month London and other English cities have been through a spasm of rioting and looting. Countering such lawlessness is the responsibility of the police service which includes units which specialise in controlling public order. These go under a variety of names: Tactical Support Group, Tactical Aid Unit etc, the best-known and biggest being the Metropolitan Police’s Territorial Support Unit. This is in contrast to the French approach where policing and public order are organised nationally, rather than by constabularies responsible to the Home Office. The unprecedented problems in the UK in August 2011, and the possibility of their recurrence in future years, will doubtless be the subject of various inquiries in the coming months. One issue which may arise is whether the UK would be better served in future by the French model.

France has two national law enforcement agencies under the control of the Interior Ministry (Ministère de l’Intérieur), the civilian Police Nationale (PN) and the Gendarmerie Nationale (GN) formerly under the Ministry of Defence (Ministère de la Défense). There is also a civilian customs and border service. Only these three can make arrests. Municipal police in the large towns enforce local by-laws, but can only notify general illegality to the other agencies.

The division of roles between the PN and GN is essentially that the PN concentrates on urban areas of more than 15,000 people, the GN on smaller urban areas, suburbs and the countryside. The GN, although now under the Interior Ministry’s budget, retains military status. There are about 120,000 policiers and 100,000 militaires. In England and Wales there are about 140,000 police officers (nearly 25% in the London force) with another 100,000 or so support staff. In Scotland there are about 17,000 police officers and 7,000 staff and in N Ireland about 7,500 full-time regular police officers and 2,700 staff. There are also UK MoD, Transport and civil nuclear police forces of about 7500 police officers and staff. This gives totals of about 170,000 police officers in the UK as opposed to 220,000 PN and GN in France. Direct comparisons are difficult to make for various reasons: lack of support staff numbers for France; the PN and GN functions do not match exactly with those of the UK police services; the PN and GN also have responsibilities in overseas departments and territories. Emma Duncan (deputy editor of The Economist) stated in The Times(£) on 11 August: ‘Britain is fairly thinly policed: England and Wales have 257 police officers per 100,000 people, compared with 301 in Germany and 369 in France’. Presumably her figures allow for the issues mentioned – certainly the impression is that France has a larger number of police for its population than the UK.

Both PN and GN have sections whose duties include riot control, the CRS (Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité) and Gendarmerie Mobile (GM)  respectively, the latter in contrast to the main GN which is organised by Department (Gendarmerie Départementale). The CRS is better-known in the UK because its appearances during major manifestations in Paris receive international media coverage. The CRS has other responsibilities which in the UK are undertaken by the Border Agency and the Metropolitan Police’s Diplomatic Protection and Special Escort Groups. Similarly the GM has roles which in the UK are discharged by HM Forces, including ceremonial duties and Special Forces tasks.
Gendarmerie Mobile

In the eyes of the French law-abiding majority, who have a distaste for disorder, both groups are ‘respected but not loved’. Civil libertarians tend to regard them as over-aggressive and as having racialist tendencies. The GM are known as la jaune (the yellow) because of their golden rank insignia, (the Gendarmerie Départementale are called la blanche after their white insignia). The GM (number unknown) wear black uniforms, whereas the CRS (about 15000) wear blue uniforms with a large red CRS patch, hence les rouges (?). Their deployment has the advantage of sending a clear signal to demonstrators that a firm line is going to be taken.

The CRS approach is based on mobility of deployment, and, once deployed, the capability to use advanced control techniques such as tear gas and rubber bullets. They are based in barracks outside the cities to which they are likely to be deployed, so, CRS from, say, Bergerac could be called to police Bordeaux, Toulouse or even Lyon. In that sense their use is antithetical to the community oriented policing approach of the UK.

The financial cost of establishing an English equivalent to the CRS outside the Metropolitan Police and County Constabularies would not be trivial. In fact, France is taking some steps in bringing the PN and GN together (rapprochement). Probably three or four bases (say one for London and the South East and two or three others) would have to be acquired (perhaps MoD surplus) and to judge from the recent riots, rapidly deployable groups of hundreds of officers would be needed to make an early impact. A total establishment of thousands of officers would be costly to maintain and their contribution to normal policing would be limited. The advantage would be the ability to suppress disorder efficiently, albeit at some cost to community policing. However, having witnessed recent events, many communities might now accept the need for heavier policing to head off problems before they get out of hand. None of this addresses the more fundamental problems of command and control. There is no UK equivalent of the French département and préfet system of central government supervision through which decisions to deploy the CRS and GM seem to be made.

To answer the question at the start, ‘Does Britain need a French-style CRS?’, the answer is probably not, but there do seem to be shortcomings in the present English system. These may in part be due to resourcing, but there may also be separate and more significant issues to be addressed as to decision-making on the deployment of the resources which are available.


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