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Sullen police strike against justice, government moves to repair rift

French police officers demonstrate outside the Justice ministry at Place Vendome against the government's penal system. October 14, 2015
French police officers demonstrate outside the Justice ministry at Place Vendome against the government's penal system. October 14, 2015 Christina Okello

Up to 7.500 police officers protested outside France's justice ministry on Tuesday calling for a harder line from the minister on prison terms and to denounce a lack of resources. The outpouring of discontent comes after an officer was shot and seriously wounded by an escaped prisoner.

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It's the biggest fall-out between the police and justice system since 1983.

The last time a sea of blue flags and orange smoke descended on Place Vendome - a glitzy square near Paris' Tuileries gardens - the then Justice minister Robert Badinter was facing down similar protests and accusations of laxity after gangsters killed two policemen.

Today, his successor Christiane Taubira is also fighting to defend her track record.

She's under fierce scrutiny, after a police officer was seriously wounded earlier this month by a prisoner who had been granted temporary release.  

Police anger
Police union flags fly above the Justice ministry Christina Okello for RFI

Many police officers are angry that the prisoner was allowed out of jail in the first place.

"The individual should never have been granted permission," Yann Bertrand, who's been working with the police for sixteen years, told RFI.

"His name was on a list of dangerous criminals, it had an S-tag next to it, which meant that he should have been under surveillance."

He wasn't, and instead managed to orchestrate a shoot-out in Seine Saint Denis, one of the capital's difficult suburbs. The brawl degenerated and saw a police officer, by the name of 'Yann', get shot. He is now fighting for his life.

The affair has brought to the boil pent-up frustration over the 'soft-power' approach of the judiciary.

"What we denounce are the decisions taken by the justice, which lets criminals out of jail before their time, when they should be locked up," Bertrand shouted above police sirens.

Taubira is trying to end overcrowding in French jails by promoting non-prison justice and a variety of early release schemes. The statistics would seem to show that she's on the right track, left-leaning paper Libe suggests.

The early-release schemes were enforced even before she came to power, and in ten years, less than 1% of prisoners accorded out-of-jail permits have actually reoffended.

"We are very skeptical about these figures," Nicolas Compte, spokesperson for Unité SGP, France's second largest police union told RFI. "Our sources inside the Justice ministry have a different version," he said.

"But we're not going to start hurling figures at each other, the point of the matter is this: police officers are fed up, we don't have enough means, and so we can't do our job properly." 

And the justice minister is seemingly making their job worse by releasing dangerous criminals into the open. According to opinion polls, 85% of French people feel Christiane Taubira is running the justice system into the ground.

Seeing the crack in authority widening, Prime minister Manuel Valls called an urgent press conference on Tuesday afternoon to try and reassure everyone concerned.

"There is no divorce between the police and justice, and there never will be," he declared boldly.

Desperate to keep the two "guarantors of law and order" together, Valls has announced a host of measures, that he hopes will appease police anger. They include simplifying the criminal procedure and imposing stricter sanctions for traffickers of lethal weapons.

But with a police force on the brink, extenuated by long hours that have increased as the terror threat and immigration crisis escalate, it's unlikely the government's reassurances will silence their anger.

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