The French government has opened a suicide prevention unit for police officers after two of their colleagues killed themselves earlier this month, taking the number of suicides in police ranks to 28 since the start of the year. According to the Interior Ministry's numbers, 68 officers took their own lives in 2018.
In two of the most recent cases, a policeman shot himself this month at home with his service weapon in Villejuif outside Paris, and a female captain shot herself in the heart in her office in the southern city of Montpellier.
"We have to break the fear, break the shame, break the silence," Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said as he opened the prevention unit's offices in Paris. He said officials would also evaluate practices and procedures in the police forces of other countries as well as in private companies.
Castaner acknowledged that police suicides were linked to the physical and emotional tolls of the work, which union officials say have increased significantly with the demands of securing the "yellow vest" protests. "I don't want to hear more about ‘this has nothing to do with the service, it was a personal issue,'" he said. But Castaner rejected claims that a move to let officers keep their service weapons at home when off duty, implemented after the deadly 2015 terror attacks in Paris, had contributed to the increase in suicides. "Over the past 10 years, the percentage of gun use in cases of suicides hasn't changed," he said.
National police chief Eric Morvan had already raised the issue in a letter to France's 150,000 officers earlier this month, acknowledging there had been a "dramatic sequence" of suicides in the force. "The human responsibility that someone has in taking this terrible decision does not exonerate us from ours," he wrote.
The move comes as prosecutors are investigating chants by some yellow vest anti-government protesters in recent weeks urging the police to "commit suicide," which have prompted widespread public outrage.
France's national police have long complained about being overworked, underappreciated and underpaid, and have tried to press their cause in the past to no avail. In addition to months of yellow vest protests, the police were called upon for extra shifts and duties following a deadly attack in December near the Strasbourg Christmas market, which led to increased surveillance around France. During the yellow vest protests, a group of French police, calling themselves "les Gyros Blues," or the "blue lights," had launched a call for demonstrations against French President Emmanuel Macron's government. Last December, the French government proposed giving 300 euro ($340) bonuses to officers deployed to the protests by the yellow vest movement that started in mid-November. President Macron committed to the idea of protest duty pay. However, police representatives wanted compensation for years of overtime duty never paid out.