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Violence. The language of security during demonstrations

If the right to publicly demonstrate is one of the highest expressions of the degree of freedom and health of a democracy, the violence with which demonstrations are repressed in Europe is now one of the indicators that the democratic process is in a deep crisis. Although this is not unique to Europe, this analysis aims to focus on European police forces and their different policing strategies in order to deconstruct the often governmental narrative of the use of violence by law enforcement as a guarantee of security and thus, protection of citizens.

1. Increase of demonstrations in Europe

Since 2010, after the outbreak of the economic and financial crisis in Greece, Europe has gradually become a protagonist of an increasing number of demonstrations and a consequent and parallel growth of crowd management tools and strategies that increasingly resort to an exponential and indiscriminate use of violence. The motivations that have prompted and ignited these demonstrations have often been internal, linked to constitutional changes in labour law, electoral law or cuts in public spending on welfare, education and culture. The tightening of restrictive measures in terms of security and individual freedoms following the terrorist attacks in Europe has also given new life to the demonstrations.

Since 2015, the response of every European government, especially the French one, has been the increasingly violent repression of these protests. It would be spontaneous, recalling perhaps the images of the demonstrations of the Nuit Debout movements first and the Gilets jaunes in France, or of the referendum for the independence of Catalonia, to reply that police violence is directly proportional to the violence expressed by the demonstrators. "The systematic infiltration of violent extremists into marches has led the police to modify their doctrine of managing demonstrations", writes Gérald Darmanin, the current French Minister of the Interior, in the new document of the National Scheme for the Maintenance of Order, expressing precisely the concept underlying our first response. To the violence of extremists the police must respond with equal violence, what government can afford to be otherwise naïve, or naïve to remain in the French context, and think of responding by containing the violence or, even worse, by using so-called 'white' instruments, which do not involve direct contact with the demonstrator? It cannot be considered plausible for a government to seek dialogue with violent people. But who are these 'violent people' anyway? If they are infiltrators, then why do the police disperse and manage the entire procession using violent means? Why, despite being a minority, are the violent ones able to monopolise the attention within a demonstration?

Crowd management and the maintenance of public order is one of the most complex issues within security techniques and procedures, not least because it is closely linked to personal rights and freedoms of movement and expression and because it is so easily politicised.

2. The different actions of European police forces in demonstrations

In every European country, it is the police force that is in charge of public exercise and the task of ensuring security and public order during demonstrations. In each European country, however, the methods of crowd dispersal and public order management are different, especially in terms of the means used and the resulting violence.

France is the country where, since 2015, there has been an increase of brutality in the police response. According to different reports by the Observatory of Police Practices (OPP), France has in fact, "a very high level of weapons" for police operations and police doctrine on maintaining public order, consists mainly of keeping demonstrators at a distance by means of distancing devices, such as water cannons, gas and tear gas grenades, so-called "deafening" hand grenades, LBDs (lanceur de balle de défense) 40, rubber bullets, are frequently used. In addition, each police officer personally has other weapons, including automatic pistols, AMD rifles, Famas assault rifles and carbines. Italy follows France in terms of weapons used by the police: automatic pistols, grenade launchers, tear gas grenades and the use of water cannons to disperse crowds. The Spanish police are the only ones in Europe to use a crowd dispersal technique typical of the United States: long-range sound devices (LRADs) that emit sounds at very high decibels. Also in Spain, police officers are armed with tear gas guns, flash balls, defensive sticks and, only in Catalonia, with LBDs, rubber projectile launchers.

Public order strategies change in northern Europe, where police violence during demonstrations also decreases proportionally: in Germany, the control of demonstrations is a matter for the Länder and police officers do not intervene armed, but with their bare hands. The state police do not intervene and water cannons are widely used to disperse crowds, but after demonstrations. In Belgium, the emphasis is on "de-escalation", with the principle of avoiding contact and confrontation with the demonstrators, and negotiation with the most extremist actors is favoured. In England, only 5% of the police force is armed during demonstrations and a practice known as "encagement" is used: that is, the police surround the most violent demonstrators by intervening to encircle and isolate them from the rest of the demonstrators.

Comparing the different ways of police intervention in European countries helps us to highlight another aspect, that of police training. More equipment during interventions corresponds to less training of police officers. As sociologist Sebastian Roché explains, in France, officers are trained for 8 months in theory and 16 months in practice, whereas in Germany, Norway and Finland, officers are trained for 3 years. The sociologist explains that by reducing the training period, officers learn to be respected by force, whereas it is essential that they learn to be respected for their ability to communicate, to deserve respect in order to win the trust of protesters, following what is known in England as the principle of "policing by consent". Fabien Jobard, sociologist, also explains that in France, different governmental measures have reduced the number of specialised forces for maintaining order, while non-specialised officers, who therefore have no specific training, are asked to intervene more and more frequently, putting them first in danger. Jobard also explains that if officers are not trained properly and in good time, they will only respond impulsively and therefore violently, in reaction to certain situations.

The choice on the training of agents and the methods of response is governmental, therefore political, and although the French Minister of the Interior himself, Darmanin, has acknowledged that recent French governments have made the serious mistake of reducing the training of agents, what remains primary and fundamental for governments is to quickly and systematically repress the extreme fringes and violent individuals, often real 'agents provocateurs’.

3. The role of agents provocateurs

More and more civil resistance and demonstration organisers are aware of the serious problems caused by misguided activists who support or engage in violent activities alongside civil resistance actions. Movement violence and the non-strategic destruction of cars, shops, and streets tends to reduce popular participation, scare off potential supporters, justify increased anti-movement repression, and diminish hope for democratic reforms or revolutions. In short, this kind of violent behaviour on the part of some activists makes movements smaller, weaker and less effective.

Fewer organisers, however, are aware of how power elites often use undercover 'agents provocateurs' to infiltrate movements and pretend to be activists. Their aim, and therefore that of the government, is precisely to increase the amount of harmful behaviour attributed to movements in an attempt to make them smaller, weaker and less effective. This is a common practice in the history of social movements, which should not surprise us. As sociologist Gary T. Marx writes in his essay on agents provocateurs in the Encyclopaedia of Social and Political Movements: "When authorities or elites are challenged by a social movement, they may ignore it or respond with a variety of instruments ranging from co-optation to redirection to repression. An extreme form of the latter is provocation. The idea of the agent provocateur entered popular consciousness in the 19th century, when Europe experienced the conflicts associated with industrialisation and urbanisation. The concept [refers] to an activist working covertly with the authorities, who might provide information, sow suspicion and internal dissent, and/or provoke violent action that would turn public opinion against a social movement and provide a legal and moral basis for its repression”[1].

During public mobilisations, agents provocateurs shout at protesters, punch them, smash windows, overturn cars, set fires, loot shops and fight in the streets with police. In many cases, they have also tried to encourage sincere but misguided movement activists to engage in such harmful behaviour - or to trap them into even more destructive actions. All with the very aim of making movements smaller, weaker and less effective.

In the book, Politics of Nonviolent Struggle, Gene Sharp explains the strategic logic that guides power elites around the world whenever civil resistance movements begin to mobilise. As Sharp notes, power elites routinely seek to undermine movements by breaking "the non-violent discipline of the resistors" and provoking movement violence through a combination of "severe repression" and employing "spies and agents provocateurs" to justify more intense repression and to damage the movement in the eyes of the public. This actually makes sense in a way that is described as 'strategic' by the author, when the negative impact of violent activity on the whole demonstration is understood.

4. Violence is a choice, not a forced response

The way in which civil movements are repressed through violence is a practice of which activists themselves or those taking part in demonstrations have now become fully aware.

In order to try to understand the degree to which calculated violent actions have now reached, the independent French newspaper Mediapart recently published a survey highlighting precisely the sabotaging role of the police force. A role that has little to do with the desire to make demonstrations safe, to protect and manage public order and that, above all, goes far beyond the border between "guaranteeing security" and "limiting freedom of movement and demonstration". The first and only result they achieve is the dispersion of protesters, the breaking up of demonstrations due to dangerous general panic and, above all, more and more protesters report serious physical injuries. In 2019 alone, 25 people lost the use of their sight due to the throwing of rubber bullets, during the Gilets jaunes demonstrations and an investigation by the French newspaper Street Press, revealed that breathing tear gas during demonstrations could have serious consequences on women's reproductive health.

In order to try to reduce the use of police violence during demonstrations, already in 2010 and until 2013, the Swedish police led the GODIAC project (Good practice for dialogue and communication as strategic principles for policing political demonstrations in Europe), which involved 20 partner organisations in 11 European countries and was funded by CEPOL, a European training agency for authorities combating violence, specifically police forces.

The aim of the project was to share and elaborate new intervention practices and to highlight the need for a new police approach to the management of demonstrations already in 2010.

The CEPOL website reports that at the end of the project, participating countries were able to share reports and research studies that were then used by the various national police forces to plan training and awareness courses for their officers. It is a pity that, as is often the case, those who need it most do not have the will: in this case, France did not participate in the work of the European project GODIAC.

One of the reasons is perhaps that, over the years and progressively since 2015, the training of officers has never been at the heart of the domestic policy agendas of first the Hollande government and then the Macron government, which have consequently increased the restrictions on the freedom to demonstrate and at the same time increased the means of repression of demonstrations at the disposal of the police forces. More means and less training for the police means more violence, and therefore demonstrations that gradually lose their attractiveness for those wishing to demonstrate and are therefore less effective.

The terrorist attacks that have hit the city since 2015 have been and continue to be the common thread and the simplest justification for these security tightenings.

The text of the latest reform of the French security law, with the evocative name "Loi Sécurité Globale", reads: "Each actor will have to have a new role and find its own spaces, its own specificities, to offer the French a global security".

Among the actors, the media and the press would seem to have no further role to play in the demonstrations, since the law, under discussion this month in the Senate, stipulates in Article 24, the prohibition of filming, or disseminating images showing the face of a police officer or anything else useful for his identification.

The press also plays an important role in demonstrations. The filming of a burning car, or of a number of seriously injured people is immediate and evocative, it makes the audience, but at the same time it obliges the prefect who sees it to act with a much stronger repressive force. This creates a circle of mutual choices and responsibilities in which the only ones that seem to be missing are the most important ones: dialogue and listening to the demonstrators.

Violence is the most obvious expression of a government's weakness: "true power unites a community, while violence destroys it. Violence can defeat power in the short term, but it can never create legitimate power", writes Hannah Arendt in her "On Violence”.


Violence. The language of security during demonstrations
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[1] Steve Chase, “Facing the Problem of Agent Provocateurs”, working drafts, International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, september 2010.


  • S. Chase, “Facing the Problem of Agent Provocateurs”, working drafts, International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, september 2010.

  • E. Chenoweth e K. Schock, “Do contemporaneous armed challenges affect the outcomes of mass nonviolent campaigns?, in Mobilization: An International Quarterly, vol. 2, n. 4, 2015, pp. 427-451.

  • A. Daillère, “Un autre maintien de l’ordre est possible”, in Humains, Acat France.

  • Interview with Fabien Jobard, “Penser la police. Politiques du désordre”, 27 november 2020

  • Ministère de l'Intérieur, “Schema national du Maintien de l’ordre”, september 2020

  • “Maintien de l’ordre: des méthodes différents en Europe”, La Depeche, 16 january 2020

  • “Maintien de l’ordre: France vs Europe”, video-documentary by Brut.Original, 2 december 2020.

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