Suicides rise among hated, stressed-out French police 60 killed themselves in 1995

rate among officers in Paris is nearly twice that of N.Y.


PARIS -- Parisians do not have warm feelings for their police. Older people remember them as collaborating with the German occupiers. Middle-aged Parisians still resent their rough repression of the 1968 student movement. To some young people, "les flics" are are fun to taunt, insult and, when possible, bombard with bottles and stones.

But an emerging secret is making the police look more human. According to their union, a growing number of French police officers are committing suicide.

Last year, a record 60 police officers took their own lives, 50 percent more than the average for the last decade. At least 24 have killed themselves this year. The rate is highest in Paris -- almost twice the rate for New York City's police.

"The cops are scorned by the public and badly treated by their superiors," said Dominique Borde, a prominent Paris lawyer. "No wonder they feel bad."

Interior Minister Jean Louis Debre has hastily promised more psychologists and more medical checkups to monitor stress among the men and women in uniform and pledged that higher-ups would pay more attention to the needs of the rank and file.

"The police are under constant stress," said Guy Maurin, a police union official. "And they take their stress home, so there are a lot of domestic problems."

From conversations with police officers on the street and with union and social workers, a picture emerges of a profession in which no matter how tough some of its members appear to be, they in many ways have become scapegoats for the growing anger in French society.

Police say the pressure brought on by economic crisis, joblessness, racial tension and drug abuse often falls on them. Increasingly, they have to cope with angry youths and tough gangs in big city suburbs, which are France's social equivalent of America's inner cities.

Police say that as their duties have grown more difficult, their professional work conditions have worsened. Because of cutbacks, they say they are understaffed and underpaid, and many feel chronically stressed.

In turn, they have often been accused of brutality, which helps explain some of the public's hostility. In a recent report, Amnesty International said French police were especially abusive toward North African youths in poor neighborhoods.

On a dark corner near the St. Lazare train station the other night, two young officers, speaking on condition of anonymity, talked of their troubles.

"It's the stupid way our bosses treat us," said one, explaining that he had just finished four days of guard duty at a government building. This meant he had to stay in one spot. Yet at the end of his tour, his boss reprimanded him for not delivering his quota of fines.

Police officers on street duty in Paris are expected to collect at least 10 fines a day for driving offenses. "Otherwise you're not considered a good cop," one said.

Morale problems are biggest in the Paris region, where young recruits are brought in from the provinces because public contempt for the police makes it hard to find local men and women.

Mr. Maurin, the union official, said that of the 24,000 police officers stationed in the Paris area, 14,000 have asked to return home.

"We're cut off from our family, cut off from our friends, and we get insulted here," said a young rookie from Nice, who was patrolling an area of rowdy nightclubs behind Bastille Square.

The other officer, from Brittany, said he could not wait to get back there.

In Paris, he said, he and his wife and two young children could hardly survive on the standard salary for rookies, about $1,500 a month, or 20 percent more than minimum wage.

Some days, he said, he feels surrounded by hostility on the streets.

Back at the station, there is the hazing and barking from his superiors. "There seems to be no way ever to decompress," he said.

Pub Date: 4/07/96

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