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Fatigue, burnout, suicide: French police feel abandoned as weekly protests sap resources14:51

Fatigue, burnout, suicide: French police feel abandoned as weekly protests sap resources

France, Multiple locations
July 22, 2019 at 03:41 GMT +00:00 · Published

“Fear, anxiety and stress. I sometimes cry because of these acts of extreme violence.”

This is how Stephanie, the wife of a French gendarme who lives near the city of Strasbourg, describes her emotions whenever her husband is deployed to help police Yellow Vest protests. That’s despite her spouse being a seasoned officer with over three decades of experience.

Stephanie, who has withheld her real name, said "I’m scared that he has these thoughts without me noticing," alluding to the growing suicide rate among French police officers.

Police unions have called out the intense pressure and stress the officers have been put through over the past 10 months as Yellow Vest protests have gripped the country.

They say gruelling hours and poor working conditions are among the reasons behind a spike in the number of officers taking their own lives.

Between January and July this year, there have been 40 police suicides – a sharp increase from the 33 incidents reported for the whole of 2018, according to France's “Movement of Angry Police Officers" (MPC).

And it's a trend that has families stressing about what their loved ones are going through when they are deployed to protest situations.

“When I watch him walk out, I always wonder if he will return, and in what state. It’s really scary,” says Stephanie.

The secretary general of the Alternative Police (CFDT) union, Denis Jacob, said he believes there is likely a multitude of reasons why officers might take their own lives, but that the nature of the workplace appears to be a key component.

“There are many factors that can lead to suicide,’’ he said, adding that, “the straw that breaks the camel’s back is work. Why have the vast majority of our colleagues committed suicide in the workplace?”

According to the president of the Uniforms in Danger association, Christelle Teixeira, it boils down to a lack of “equipment, manpower and acknowledgment,” and “every day, it grows, the distress grows … and one day they can’t do it anymore.”

A French Senate report published in 2018 pointed out that the police suicide rate in France is 36 percent higher than the general average.

Denis Jacob explained that the French police have been experiencing a build-up of stress since a spate of deadly terrorist attacks in France began back in 2015 and a subsequent state of emergency was introduced throughout the country.

“The protest of the Yellow Vests isn't the cause of the increase in suicides,” he said. “It’s accumulated fatigue for four years. With these series of events, officers have had to postpone their days off, cancel their holidays or days off. Our colleagues don’t regularly get time to rest.”

Stephanie describes the level of exhaustion among her husband’s colleagues as “burnout.”

"Every day for three years, they’re called all the time and sometimes for minor missions when they are not necessarily needed.”

Police unions and families fear their concerns are not being heard.

According to Michel Thooris, the secretary general for police syndicate Policiers en Colere, the officers are being used as part of a diversionary tactic, as the Yellow Vest movement continues to vent its anger around the country.

“They use the national police force for political ends, as they refuse to respond to the political claims of the Yellow Vests. They use the national police simply as a tool with which to postpone a political deadline. Demonstration after demonstration, we see that more and more, there’s an attempt to convert the conflict of the Yellow Vests into one between the national police, the gendarmerie and the Yellow Vests.”

Yellow Vest protests started back in November last year against a rise in the fuel tax, but quickly turned into a nationwide stand against the government. What has become one of the longest and most violent social protest movements in modern France has seen thousands of injuries on both sides.

While Eric Roman, Member of Syndicate France Police - Angry Police, acknowledges that the "’repression' inflicted on demonstrators has been particularly fierce,” other police representatives say the response must be a political one.

Denis Jacob said he believes police officers should stop bearing the brunt for President Emmanuel Macron, who, he said, must now find a political solution to end the protests.

“We are mad at Macron, so we get revenge on cops,” Jacob said, explaining the position of the protesters. “The police can’t take it anymore," he continued. “For this to stop we need a political response fast."

Ruptly has reached out to the French Interior Ministry and police but has not yet received a comment.

Families of the officers also claim stigmatisation of the police is a contributing factor to the number of suicides. This is the reason both Stephanie and Melanie, the wife of another officer who has also withheld her real name, asked Ruptly to conceal their faces during our interviews. Another reason is that they wish to avoid any harassment of their family and especially of their children. Melanie shared with us how her husband was assaulted in front of their children, simply because the attackers knew he was a police officer. Stephanie highlighted threats on social media, including calls to 'kill' police and a witch hunt to find out officers' names.

Stephanie held a printed image of a police badge with an inscription above reading "Mutilation warning, population in danger; The badge of shame." She found the materials online, evidence of the hostility from some towards the French police.

In May this year, the French government opened a Suicide Prevention Unit, with the Interior Minister Christophe Castaner describing it as a move to “break the fear,” “break the shame” and “break the silence,” while addressing the French press.

This comes seven months after Castaner tweeted his sorrow at the death of an officer and high-profile activist, Maggy Biskupski. She committed suicide, reportedly with her own service weapon, after years of fighting against the stigmatisation of police, the anger directed towards them and the increasing rate of suicide in their ranks.

Ruptly spoke to Biskupski back in 2017 about the challenges facing the police.

“The lack of colleagues is something that is difficult for us on a daily basis,” she said.

And families and unions believe the problem of understaffing still remains.

"What we want is more support for our husbands, especially in the riot police,” Stephanie said.

Eric Roman fears that "if we keep going like this, the number of suicides this year will be four times higher than last year’s. It’s impossible to keep going.” Denis Jacob concluded, “we can’t stand it anymore.”

Fatigue, burnout, suicide: French police feel abandoned as weekly protests sap resources14:51
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Description

“Fear, anxiety and stress. I sometimes cry because of these acts of extreme violence.”

This is how Stephanie, the wife of a French gendarme who lives near the city of Strasbourg, describes her emotions whenever her husband is deployed to help police Yellow Vest protests. That’s despite her spouse being a seasoned officer with over three decades of experience.

Stephanie, who has withheld her real name, said "I’m scared that he has these thoughts without me noticing," alluding to the growing suicide rate among French police officers.

Police unions have called out the intense pressure and stress the officers have been put through over the past 10 months as Yellow Vest protests have gripped the country.

They say gruelling hours and poor working conditions are among the reasons behind a spike in the number of officers taking their own lives.

Between January and July this year, there have been 40 police suicides – a sharp increase from the 33 incidents reported for the whole of 2018, according to France's “Movement of Angry Police Officers" (MPC).

And it's a trend that has families stressing about what their loved ones are going through when they are deployed to protest situations.

“When I watch him walk out, I always wonder if he will return, and in what state. It’s really scary,” says Stephanie.

The secretary general of the Alternative Police (CFDT) union, Denis Jacob, said he believes there is likely a multitude of reasons why officers might take their own lives, but that the nature of the workplace appears to be a key component.

“There are many factors that can lead to suicide,’’ he said, adding that, “the straw that breaks the camel’s back is work. Why have the vast majority of our colleagues committed suicide in the workplace?”

According to the president of the Uniforms in Danger association, Christelle Teixeira, it boils down to a lack of “equipment, manpower and acknowledgment,” and “every day, it grows, the distress grows … and one day they can’t do it anymore.”

A French Senate report published in 2018 pointed out that the police suicide rate in France is 36 percent higher than the general average.

Denis Jacob explained that the French police have been experiencing a build-up of stress since a spate of deadly terrorist attacks in France began back in 2015 and a subsequent state of emergency was introduced throughout the country.

“The protest of the Yellow Vests isn't the cause of the increase in suicides,” he said. “It’s accumulated fatigue for four years. With these series of events, officers have had to postpone their days off, cancel their holidays or days off. Our colleagues don’t regularly get time to rest.”

Stephanie describes the level of exhaustion among her husband’s colleagues as “burnout.”

"Every day for three years, they’re called all the time and sometimes for minor missions when they are not necessarily needed.”

Police unions and families fear their concerns are not being heard.

According to Michel Thooris, the secretary general for police syndicate Policiers en Colere, the officers are being used as part of a diversionary tactic, as the Yellow Vest movement continues to vent its anger around the country.

“They use the national police force for political ends, as they refuse to respond to the political claims of the Yellow Vests. They use the national police simply as a tool with which to postpone a political deadline. Demonstration after demonstration, we see that more and more, there’s an attempt to convert the conflict of the Yellow Vests into one between the national police, the gendarmerie and the Yellow Vests.”

Yellow Vest protests started back in November last year against a rise in the fuel tax, but quickly turned into a nationwide stand against the government. What has become one of the longest and most violent social protest movements in modern France has seen thousands of injuries on both sides.

While Eric Roman, Member of Syndicate France Police - Angry Police, acknowledges that the "’repression' inflicted on demonstrators has been particularly fierce,” other police representatives say the response must be a political one.

Denis Jacob said he believes police officers should stop bearing the brunt for President Emmanuel Macron, who, he said, must now find a political solution to end the protests.

“We are mad at Macron, so we get revenge on cops,” Jacob said, explaining the position of the protesters. “The police can’t take it anymore," he continued. “For this to stop we need a political response fast."

Ruptly has reached out to the French Interior Ministry and police but has not yet received a comment.

Families of the officers also claim stigmatisation of the police is a contributing factor to the number of suicides. This is the reason both Stephanie and Melanie, the wife of another officer who has also withheld her real name, asked Ruptly to conceal their faces during our interviews. Another reason is that they wish to avoid any harassment of their family and especially of their children. Melanie shared with us how her husband was assaulted in front of their children, simply because the attackers knew he was a police officer. Stephanie highlighted threats on social media, including calls to 'kill' police and a witch hunt to find out officers' names.

Stephanie held a printed image of a police badge with an inscription above reading "Mutilation warning, population in danger; The badge of shame." She found the materials online, evidence of the hostility from some towards the French police.

In May this year, the French government opened a Suicide Prevention Unit, with the Interior Minister Christophe Castaner describing it as a move to “break the fear,” “break the shame” and “break the silence,” while addressing the French press.

This comes seven months after Castaner tweeted his sorrow at the death of an officer and high-profile activist, Maggy Biskupski. She committed suicide, reportedly with her own service weapon, after years of fighting against the stigmatisation of police, the anger directed towards them and the increasing rate of suicide in their ranks.

Ruptly spoke to Biskupski back in 2017 about the challenges facing the police.

“The lack of colleagues is something that is difficult for us on a daily basis,” she said.

And families and unions believe the problem of understaffing still remains.

"What we want is more support for our husbands, especially in the riot police,” Stephanie said.

Eric Roman fears that "if we keep going like this, the number of suicides this year will be four times higher than last year’s. It’s impossible to keep going.” Denis Jacob concluded, “we can’t stand it anymore.”

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