Preventive Arrests: The Controversial Tool Against Protests

Rising unrest against the French President due to the recent pension reform has led to the police using dubious, undemocratic methods to combat the protests

  • French police have been accused of “preventive” arrests
  • These arrests are entirely arbitrary and ~80% are released with no charges
  • The French police and Interior Minister deny such happenings
Police pull away demonstrators protesting in the streets of Paris, France. (Image credit: AP Photo/Lewis Joly)

On Wednesday, France’s Chief Inspector for Prisons, Dominique Simonnot, wrote in a report about the police arresting protestors on legal grounds that are dubious at best and non-existent at worst. The inspector claims these arrests to be a “trivialization” of police custody and a serious breach of fundamental rights as a citizen of France.

Simonnot alleges that the police chiefs and public prosecutors are encouraging “preventive arrests” of people protesting the recent pension reform in France. Also directly accusing the police force of “indiscriminate arrests” in some sectors of the capital. This misuse of police custody has been accused as a form of suppression of the public voices, as only 20% of all arrests had charges brought for them.

The Interior Minister, Gerald Darmanin (commonly called ‘France’s top cop’) accused Simonnot of exceeding her jurisdiction, and the Paris Police Chief, Police Prefect Laurent Nunez, claims that “preventive arrests” is a made-up concept, and he has never instructed the force to carry them out.

“Preventive” arrests

Oftentimes referred to as “pre-emptive” arrests, preventive arrests are carried out during protests to “prevent violent riots” by arresting the leaders of the protest or violent individuals. However, a majority of people arrested under such dubious pretenses are let go after some time, often before the protests have died down, leaving many to perceive such arrests as a way to scare the protestors away. 

These arrests justify themselves using a null hypothesis,

  • If a protest turns violent (which happens more often than not) without any preventive arrests, then the police can justify any future preventive arrests.
  • If a protest doesn’t turn violent after preventive arrests, then the police can use this as evidence of why preventive arrests work
  • If a protest turns violent even after preventive arrests, well, the police just didn’t arrest enough people.

Whether preventive arrests work to keep all protests peaceful or not is nearly impossible to calculate. Just because a protest didn’t turn violent after some of its members were arrested “preventatively”, doesn’t mean it was bound to turn violent. 

Preventive arrests are also seen as being against the ideals of democracy and freedom of speech and expression, as peaceful protestors have been arrested, not for any crime they have committed in the past, but for the possibility of their presence causing a riot in the future, which is something that can neither be proven nor disproven.

In Paris during the early days of the protest in March, over 400 people were arrested. Within 48 hours, all but a handful were released without any charges. The arrested included minors, homeless people, and random bystanders who, at the time of arrest, were entirely unaffiliated with the ongoing protests.

Several human rights monitors, both domestic and international, have turned their attention toward this practice. Claire Hédon, a human rights ombudswoman in France, notes several tactics used by the French police, including a method of crowd control called “kettling” where the police surround the protestors and push them into a very small space.

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