Drugs Linked to Swell in Violence Targeting French Police

Following yet another high-profile slaying of a French police officer, officials are pointing to drug trafficking as the primary culprit in the increase of anti-police violence, foreshadowing a possible crackdown on drug crime ahead.

Officer Eric Masson, 36, was shot to death at Avignon police headquarters in southwest France on Sunday. The two main suspects had records linked to drugs, according to French law enforcement.

"It's a reality that there is violence in our society and it's swelling, and that each day the role of our police is made more difficult by this violence," President Emmanuel Macron said over the weekend.

Macron is set to make drug crime a priority ahead of next year's presidential election, he indicated during an interview with the right-leaning newspaper Le Figaro.

He called drug crime "the economic matrix of violence" and argued that "to eradicate them by all means has become the mother of battles."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Police officers pay homage to a slain colleague at a police station in Avignon, southern France, on May 9, 2021. Police officers and civilians gathered to commemorate the death of a police officer who was killed Wednesday at a known drug-dealing site in Avignon. AP Photo/Daniel Cole

"Dead or Alive." The chilling words were scrawled on photos of three police officers in their uniforms posted last month on a wall in a Grenoble suburb, in southwest France.

To French police, this is just one more sign of an upsurge in violence specifically targeting police that is making it harder for them to keep France safe.

A police officer was shot to death last week in the historic district of the southern city of Avignon, a summer tourist mecca. The murder in broad daylight struck a chord among the French, with thousands of people joining police to pay homage Sunday to Masson at Avignon police headquarters.

Prime Minister Jean Castex is presiding Tuesday over a ceremony to pay tribute to Masson. It will be the second national homage to a police official in less than two weeks, after the fatal stabbing April 23 of an official inside the entrance of her station in the Paris suburb of Rambouillet by a man authorities said was an Islamic radical.

Experts, however, note that more French police were killed in past decades than today, but that police tactics have hardened in recent years, leading to a deficit in confidence amid claims of systemic racism within the police, racial profiling and videos showing apparent abuse and sometimes deadly violence.

So while U.S. legislators are working on a sweeping effort to rein in police powers in the wake of George Floyd's death in Minnesota last year, France's government has been increasing police powers instead.

Britain is following a similar path with a bill to give police more powers to control increasingly disruptive protests. Police chiefs say an outdated law leaves them without sufficient means to cope. The wide-ranging bill has itself triggered protests, including some violent clashes with police amid critics' fears the measure would significantly curb freedom of speech and assembly.

In France, police regularly fall prey to night ambushes, in Paris suburbs known for crime and drugs, or in the north, including Turcoing, where Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin served as mayor. This week, violence erupted in the Mediterranean town of Frejus. In a classic scenario, youth throw fireworks and projectiles at police, and even firetrucks arriving to extinguish a garbage can fire, as bait to draw in police.

"Violence against police has doubled in 20 years," said Thierry Clair, deputy chief of the police union UNSA, saying that verbal insults or spitting aren't uncommon.

But Sebastian Roche, a sociologist and expert on police, said that police are less at risk of being killed today than they were three decades ago. He said that 30 officers were killed on average per year in the 1980s, compared to about 10 in recent years.

Another specialist, Laurent Mucchielli, dismissed claims of a major uptick in violence as a political message, fed by the media. Posters and family snapshots of police discovered in housing projects are "exceptional," Mucchielli said.

Both experts agreed that the yellow vest protests that started in 2018 were bad for the image of police, who used brutal tactics to control sometimes anarchic marches by the protesters seeking economic and social justice.

Roche digs further back. Over the past 20 years, "France progressively, in stages, engaged police in aggressive policies," notably cordoning off suburban housing projects. "These techniques diminished confidence in the police."

Today, "the people who have the most confidence in the police in France are people who never see them intervene," Roche said after analyzing 10 years worth of data by the national statistics agency.

"The more people see them intervene, the less confidence they have in them," he said. Roche stressed that "people don't reject the police. They reject certain tactics."

Police unions have found new leverage in the loss of their colleagues to press longstanding demands, including better protection for forces and backup from what police say is a lax judicial system that fails to translate arrests into convictions and firm punishment.

Macron has promised 10,000 more officers in the streets by the end of his term and increased the police budget. At a Monday night meeting with unions, Castex laid out a series of measures to ensure courts get tough on anyone dishonoring the uniform and a guarantee of 30 years in prison for the killing of a police officer, the same punishment as for terrorists.

More perhaps than danger is what Clair, the union official, said is a growing lack of respect for police.

"It's above all this notion of respect," Clair said. "When you feel the uniform you're wearing doesn't get the respect of the person in front of you and you're constantly considered badly by a part of the population, you say there's a problem."

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French police officers carry a portrait of Officer Eric Masson, who was killed on May 5, 2021, during an anti-drug operation, at a ceremony in Avignon on May 11, 2021. NICOLAS TUCAT/POOL/AFP/Getty Images