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Book review : On Quentin Deluermoz’s “Policiers dans la ville” : the uniformed policeman in 19th century Paris

The rise of men in blues : the uniformed policeman in 19th century Paris

Review by Vincent Denis :

 Quentin Deluermoz, Policiers dans la ville, Préface de Dominique Kalifa, Publications de la Sorbonne, Paris, 2011.

This is a fascinating book about a typical figure of the Parisian landscape, the uniformed cop. But there is more in this book than another Parisiana chromography. It is the story of a great transformation of the city itself.

 This is a book about  relating the integration of a new kind of policing, practically and symbolically, in the city of Paris. This central innovation has a starting point : in 1854, the introduction of the uniformed policeman, at a large scale, first the sergent de ville, later renamed under the Republic as the gardien de la paix. I think Quentin Deluermoz shows us one of the most important transformation in the history of police in France.

Until this date, and since the 18th century,  in Paris, police work was assured by police commissioners who basically received complaints in their neighborhood, and a large variety of ominous plaincloth officers, who were hated and despised by the population, in charge of catching thieves but also tracking clandestine illicit activities in the city and keeping an eye on political opponents. The « main-forte », the armed presence, in the streets, was the mission of paramilitary or army units, with military organization and equipment : before the French Revolution, the garde de Paris, and the elite regiment of the Gardes Françaises, and after 1789 the Garde Nationale, the gendarmes, the Garde de Paris for daily surveillance, and ultimately army regiments stationed in the city.

The introduction of this new kind of agent was a real breakthrough in a secular tradition of policing based on this triad of visible police commissioners (often familiar figures), plainclothes inspectors or spies and riflemen. These new agents were inspired by the London bobbies : although they had a military background, they were police agents, they wore a distinct uniform, and they were ligthly armed (with a saber). They were not the first visible policemen in the history of policing in Paris, since the police commissioners were highly visible, public figures, easily available at all time of the day and night in their hôtel de police or commissariat, for ages. But they were only a handful (48 exactly for a whole city, and this number remained the same until the middle of the 19th century). For the first time, there was a visible civilian police force, in the streets, in large numbers. So the subaltern police agents who had been hidden  became all the sudden very visible.

The other innovation was the introduction of the beat patrol (another Londonian feature). The book demonstrates that it meant a real change in the way the police invested the space of Paris. The beat patrol took place in a global new pattern of policing, which was based on the repeated circulation of policemen in all the areas of the city, contrasting with the more static precedent pattern, based on strong points (posts, police stations and barracks) from where patrols were regularly deployed. These two innovations, the uniform policeman and the beat patrol, gradually created a new relation between the Parisians and their police, but also a public order of a new kind.

Quentin Deluermoz carefully retraced how this new police was received by the population. At first, there was much more incomprenhension than repulsion or hostility. People seemed puzzled by this new visibility of the police. It seems there was a discordance between the change of the police structures, and the relative inertia of the political imagination about the police. There is a long tradition of suspicion and defiance against « hidden police » in Paris,  during the 18th and 19th century. This opposition between visible and invisible police in the city was structured around 1700 when police inspectors were introduced for the first time, doubling the police commissioners. This dual system was reinstated before the end of the French Revolution, and barely changed. Why this suspicion ? Police commissioners symbolized a paternalist pattern of policing, behaving more like civil magistrates. Police inspectors represented a new kind of policing, « high policing », to quote the sociologist of police Jean-Claude Brodeur. It is also related to the nature of the police of Paris, which became precociously a State police, well before the French Revolution (rather an exception in France). This system of « hidden police » was even refined in the first part of the 19th century, with undercover night patrols and so on. At the end of the Empire, and during the Commune of Paris, these traditional anxieties suddendly and brutally re-appeared, as Quentin demonstrates, with aggressions, murders and persecution of policemen, who were all the more exposed to angry mobs and neighbours that they were highly visible.

Oddly, the insurgent population and the radicals often turned towards the traditional police alternative since 1789, i.e. the Garde Nationale, a militia, or other various forms of neighborhood policing. This was rather an utopia, since theses forms of policing were not well adapted to the social division of work required by modern societies. No wonder they were short-lived.

Under the Republic, these agents became familiar figures in the Parisian landscape. Making good use of newspapers, advertisements and popular literature, Quentin Deluermoz demonstrates the progressive integration of uniformed officers in cityscape. Although there still could be tension and conflict, they acquired a vague aura of ordinariness and dull normality, symbolized by the popular image of an old, fat, cheeky police officer. The idea is that they were not fearful figures anymore, but typical elements of the city, as the new modern equipment associated to urban life (advertising posts, lamp posts etc). One can discuss the validity of the analysis of the press, popular images, advertisement and mass literature to convey an impression on the feelings associated to policemen. But this use of mass-media and commercial representations, considered as reflects of common ideas, is always combined with archival evidences. There are proofs of the circulation of these literay commonplaces on the police, turned to them by angry passers-by when they arrested them. The « faits divers », a central feature in the commercial development of popular press in the last decades of the 19th century, is carefully studied in its narrative structure. There was a shift, from efficiency to inefficiency of the police, in the relations of police action, coinciding with a period of great anxiety about delinquance and recividists. May I suggest that another indicator of public trust would have been the number of formal complaints, if such figures exist. Public trust in police institutions is correlated with the number of people addressing them to solve their problems.

Quentin Deluermoz made also an excellent use of police records, to show how the population considered the policemen. The number of complaints against policemen, the letters sent to the Prefect of Police, or the threat of sending one kept in the police records after an incident with an agent, testify in favour of a kind of empowerment of Parisians towards their police. Filling a formal complaint, keeping track of an agent by his identification number, visible on his collar, became a common tool, even in the working-class neighborhood of Belleville, and for individual of all social backgrounds. An essentiel consequence of visibility was that policemen had to behave, under the scrutiny of the neighboorhood, their colleagues, and the press. This is an important toward an increased accountability of the police.

The book insists on the gradual transformation of the policemen themselves, especially after 1880. It does no presume a fixed police structure, but rather describes a very moving, wavering reality. According to Quentin Deluermoz, during the first decades of their existence, being a policeman is not a « métier », a craft or a profession, but a mere occupation, a job without set references, that did not really exist before. Eloquently, one of his chapter about the ordinary lives of policemen, is named « lessons from the street », or « graduating from the street » (l’école de la rue). In the absence of any formalized professional training, police officers learn their job the hard way, initiated by older agents or probably try to cope with their previous experience (in the army) and the regulations provided by the police headquarters. There is a clear cut when the préfet Lépine introduced the first practical school for training policemen in the 1890’s. Strikingly, police work is more and more shaped by regulations, codes, written instructions, and a centralized command, which is still an actual feature. The beat patrol itself was replaced by other patterns of policing. Its coincidence with a reinforcement of intermediary commanding field officers (brigadiers) made me wonder whether it would be a reaction against the excessive autonomy and « discretion » of police officers on the beat patrol. By the end of the century, they became the elementary pieces of a larger urban machinery, in the ideal model of urban administration that can be read in the regulations of the préfecture .


By the way, the book relativizes the chronology of modern policing established by Jean-Marc Berlière, in his pioneering work on the Préfet Louis Lépine, « inventor of modern police ». This is one of the stakes of the book, as one of its starting point was to challenge the assumption of more « modern » police invented by the Third Republic. Actually, Quentin Deluermoz convincingly demonstrates that the pattern of uniform policeman and beat patrol was decisive turning point in the policing of Paris, well before the Republic. The idea of a precise date for the « birth » or the « origin » of modern police is rather an obstacle than a useful tool (and before that we should define what we mean by « modern » policing). One of the lessons of the book is to insist more on incremental transformations. The system introduced in 1854 proved to be so successful that it was rapidly re-established after its brief suppression in 1870 and during the Commune.

One of the main achievements of the book is the discussion of the transformation of public order. Policemen had to constantly negotiate to establish their authority, against what Quentin Deluermoz calls « orders of the street », meaning local, indigenous orders. He made the choice of relying on case studies, due to the lack of sufficient sources for a quantified study. It is impossible to trace down a shift from one type of public order to another one, more modern and more rational. Instead, there are gradual transformations, a kind of mutual acceptance and definition of roles between Parisians and policemen. Conflict is not inexistent, but less frequent. The development of the uniformed policeman fills a new police function, « administrative police », the equivalent to the modern « sécurité publique », which is more and more distinct from the investigation of serious crime and other specialized police tasks. Its field is definitely the street, « la voie publique ». One can try to qualify the kind of policing that is eventually implemented : it is visual, with the idea that on the public space some things must not be visible (such as vagabonds and beggars, perverts or people showing improper parts of their body). Of course, it deals with petty theft and interpersonal violence, but this emphasis on « cleaning up the streets » visually is a new feature, is promised to a bright future.

To conclude, it is not a coincidence if the introduction of the uniformed policeman was simultaneous to the physical reshaping of the city by Haussmann. The book makes a point in studying this figure which became a symbol of the city, as much as the Hausmannian avenues and boulevards.

I would like to raise two questions, incented by reading this insighfult, beautifully crafted work. In this respect, one must rethink the contribution of the police to shape and produce public space. In this history of the relation between the Parisian and their policemen, there is one essential and ominous protagonist, the streets of Paris, the morphology of the city. Police action and their interaction with the people contributed to change the uses of the streets. But how did the popular uses of the streets change over time ? How the definition of the street did change, from Haussman to Lépine ? How this kind of transformation affected police work ?

Another issue would be the policemen themselves. There is a privileged focus on the way the Parisians considered their police. The book carefully studied the institutionnalization of this group. However, I am curious about the policemen themselves. What were their interests in their tasks ? Why did they join the force ? And more important, how did they judge the surrounding society, and the various groups composing the population of Paris ? Did they share the official values emphasized by the solemn ceremonies described in the last part of the book ? The sociology of modern police forces in the US or in France insist on the conflicting values among policemen, who are not a homogeneous group. Here, Quentin Deluermoz gives some hints on the occasion of the insurrection of the Commune, when some policemen chose to remain in the insurgent city. There are other chapters to write in the history of the uniformed policeman.