Volume 1 Number 9
Down With the Barricades
01 May 1988

From 1983 to 1986, Bernard Gauthier was Prefect of Police for the Nord Departement of France. He writes in a personal Bernard Gauthier

I accepted my posting to Northern France not just as a government servant with considerable powers but as a man of faith, which I have not always been. In trying to understand the practical demands of faith, I owe much to a number of friends, including those from Moral Re-Armament.

Before leaving Paris, it was important to commit myself in prayer to the new job. My duty as a government representative was clear. But I was also determined, as a man of faith, to listen to people with patience, to respect others, to be open to discussion and also to be firm if things went too far. Only if all other things failed would I turn, as a servant of the state, to legal force and sanctions.

Crime increased 20 per cent in the year before I arrived. Financial restraints meant that police manpower could not be increased, so the best use had to be made of the forces available. This meant structural and organizational reforms. Crime prevention measures were undertaken in association with other national and local agencies.

I was also committed to keeping as close as possible to the men and women under my authority - to be aware of their working situations as well as any professional or personal problems. In the first weeks and months I visited a1160 local commissariats in my charge. I noted difficulties and did what I could to put them right. Sometimes a visit would result in no more than having shabby offices smartened up and repainted. Simple actions of this sort, plus open and honest discussions about our role as police, led to better communications and relationships.

We did succeed in stopping the increase in crime, even achieving a small decrease, but continual burglaries, vandalism and assault were making people feel more and more insecure. In urban areas with a high proportion of immigrants (in this case mostly North African Muslims), fear and racial hostility complicated the problem. Immigrants were blamed, usually unjustly, for an increasingly tense situation.

From the start two things seemed clear. First, we had to ensure that individuals were respected. Expressions of a racist nature (whether written or spoken) or any racist act from a government official or policeman could not be tolerated. Second, the law should be understood and respected by all. Illegal immigrants, for example, were to be brought to justice firmly but without force.

I decided to add the name of a leading Muslim Imam to the list of 30 or so local personalities to whom a Prefect taking up his post should traditionally make a courtesy call. The gesture was much appreciated.

Soon after making the visit to the Imam, a group of Algerian trainee pilots, recently arrived in France, were insulted and roughed up by young Frenchmen at a village fair. Luckily no one was badly hurt but all 80 Algerians at the college to which the insulted group belonged decided to end their training and return home at once. The incident caused a diplomatic stir.

The first need was for rapid action. The miscreants were quickly arrested and brought to justice. More importantly, I was able to contact the Consul General for Algeria in Lille and we drove together to meet the trainees. I wanted to apologize personally to them on behalf of the French authorities and to explain that the way they were treated was not typical of the local population.
On arrival we were taken by the director of the college to a lecture hall full of young men with stony expressions. The welcome was frigid. The Consul General introduced me and explained that as the new Prefect of Police in the area, I had made a point of personally visiting a Muslim religious leader.

This, he added, was an indication of the respect I considered due to the Muslim community and other ethnic and religious groups. When it came to my turn to speak, the atmosphere was already better and we could talk frankly. Later that same evening the Algerians decided to remain in France.

Another group whom I met early on in my period of office were representatives of business and industrial management associations and local trades union leaders. I took time to get to know each individual and to establish a clear understanding with them of my role as police chief.

Following this a number of misunderstandings and clashes were avoided in spite of frequent incidents due to factory closures and unemployment. Only once did a street demonstration get seriously out of hand when a small minority, against the expressed orders of the union organizers, broke windows of the Prefecture in Lille and some people were subsequently injured.

Threat to safety
In one tense situation, workers at a factory threatened with closure had gone on strike and occupied the premises. They used agricultural machinery made in the factory to build huge barricades across the streets, manned by determined strikers.

After two days, I contacted the union leaders and said that I intended to take action to restore normality. I explained that this was in no way related to their fundamental right to strike, but that the barricades were an unacceptable obstruction and a threat to public safety. I told them that I would personally supervise the operation and that I did not expect any resistance.

That night, with a strong police presence, the barricades were dismantled. There were no disturbances. First thing the next morning, the regional leaders of the two most important trade unions phoned to thank me for keeping my word and for having been present throughout the operation.

In a similar manner we built trusting relationships between police and other bodies on both sides of the long frontier between France and Belgium. This enabled us to cooperate over criminals attempting to escape across the frontier as well as over drug-trafficking and international terrorism and crime prevention, notably car thefts.

In my three years as chief of police in the Nord I found, unfortunately, that a small number of people rejected the conciliatory approach. Sometimes to my surprise, people who should have been working with us used lies and abuse to discredit what we were trying to do. Anyone in a position of leadership who wants to play an honest, conscientious and effective part cannot afford to overlook the possibility of opposition. If he does, he is either naively idealistic or totally unrealistic.

But my experience has confirmed something I already knew in theory - that the exercise of responsibility in a spirit of listening, respect for the other person, dialogue and trust, makes it possible to tackle and resolve complex and explosive problems. Sometimes a measure of force had to be used on behalf of the State, but many problems were better dealt with in a spirit of cooperation.

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