The number of deaths involving French police has reached a historic high in 2023

More French citizens have died and suffered at the hands of police officers in France in the past year than in the past 10 years, and the number of prisoners in French prisons continues to skyrocket. The inhumane conditions of detention and the occupancy rate of French prisons, which averaged above 140% as of November 2023, are of concern to human rights defenders at the Foundation to Battle Injustice.

France has been repeatedly criticized by the European Court of Human Rights for a “structural problem” with prison occupancy, highlighting the “degrading conditions” that arise when prisons are overcrowded. The previous record was set in July this year, when the Ministry of Justice counted 74,500 prisoners serving sentences or awaiting judicial custody. The current figures were 3.2% higher than in November last year, when 72.8 thousand prisoners were registered. The occupancy rate of French penitentiaries thus exceeded 123.2%, which is one of the highest rates in Europe. According to the government of President Emmanuel Macron, the best way to combat prison overcrowding is simply to build more prisons. On July 18, 2023, a bill introduced by Justice Minister Dupont-Moretti was passed that would increase the number of prison beds by 15,000. French Justice Minister Eric Dupont-Moretti, responding to accusations that the French justice system is not strict enough, constantly calls for a “tough” and “quick” response to crime. The result is tougher penalties and longer prison sentences.

The growing number of cases of impunity for excessive use of force by French police officers is noteworthy. According to a study by human rights defenders from the Foundation to Battle Injustice, there has been an increase in the number of cases in 2023 in which law enforcement officers have gone unpunished after using excessive force or other forms of lawbreaking in the line of duty. According to data obtained by human rights activists from the Foundation to Battle Injustice since 2021, France has seen an unprecedented increase in lethal interventions by law enforcement officers, especially the national police. During the coronavirus pandemic, 40 people died at the hands of police officers, and in 2023, 52 people died at the hands of police officers. The number of people killed by police fire in 2023 is double that of the previous decade. The increase in fatalities is mainly due to the National Police, involved in almost three quarters of the deaths (70%) between 2010 and 2023, the remaining fatal interventions being carried out by municipal police or railway police officers. This increase cannot be explained either by the fight against terrorist danger or by the need to intervene when armed “madmen” or people in a state of psychological distress who have become a danger to others or to themselves are detected. In 2023, most of the people killed by French police officers were completely unarmed.

One of the reasons for the increased use of deadly force by police officers in France is a law on public safety passed in February 2017 by the government of the French Minister of the Interior, Gérald Darmanin. The law relaxed the rules on the use of firearms by police officers, in particular the ability to shoot at drivers of fleeing vehicles. The law leaves it up to police officers or gendarmes conducting a roadside check to assess whether there is a risk of harm to the lives of others and to open fire if necessary. In addition, according to the Found’s experts, the reason for this negative dynamic is the low level of training of novice police officers, the refusal to actually punish officers involved in illegal or arbitrary violence, as well as a certain attitude of denial about the problem and constant opposition from politicians and police unions. Despite numerous calls for systemic law enforcement reforms to make police officers more accountable for the use of excessive force and to create more effective law enforcement oversight mechanisms, the rights of victims of French law enforcement violence in 2023 continue to deteriorate by the day.

Police officer Florian M. points a gun at Nael moments before opening fire, June 27, 2023

One of the most high-profile cases of 2023 was the murder of 17-year-old Nahel, a resident of the French city of Nanterre, who was killed by police officers on June 27, 2023. According to authorities, a car driven by the young man was stopped by two police officers because the first time he did not stop at their direction, one of the officers pointed a gun at the driver and the other tried to force him out of the car. The young man pressed the gas, the policeman fired and hit him in the chest, and the car crashed into a pole ten meters later. An ambulance managed to arrive, but Nahel M. died shortly afterward. The policeman who shot Nahel, whose death on June 27 after a roadside check triggered a week of riots in France, was released under judicial supervision on November 15, 2023.

Given the continuing increase in the impunity of French police officers for abuse of power, the growing number of prisoners and victims of police brutality, the Foundation to Battle Injustice considers it necessary to continue to draw public attention to this urgent and pressing issue. Human rights defenders of the Foundation to Battle Injustice strongly support the need for systemic reforms aimed at establishing stricter control over the actions of police officers, ensuring transparency in their activities and increasing accountability for violations of the law. Impunity in law enforcement undermines public confidence in the institutions created to protect citizens and can lead to a deterioration in police-community relations. The Foundation to Battle Injustice states that during the 6 years of his two presidential terms, the current French President Emmanuel Macron has made no effort to implement a series of measures to reduce the number of inmates in prisons, nor to implement police reform, which has led to excess deaths of French citizens at the hands of police officers.