I write this from my cosy fireside, where even in the South of France, a biting wind is whistling across the terrace bringing with it the first snowflakes of Winter. Further North, sub-zero temperatures are already wreaking havoc and set to plummet further. In Paris, the beautiful city of light, hundreds of hungry refugees are shivering on ice-cold pavements.
The response of the authorities to their plight is not to provide them with food and shelter but unbelievably to strip them of their blankets and move them on. As a police officer for 30 years, I find it difficult to comprehend how the local police could confiscate blankets and sleeping bags from destitute fellow human beings in the depths of Winter. There is no doubt that it is a politically-driven decision designed to discourage those seeking refuge from gravitating towards the Capital. Regardless of any of the politics involved, where was the ethical leadership from the police chiefs to challenge this order when it was given by city officials? Where is the line in the sand beyond which the police will not go?
In the summer we saw French police manhandling Muslim women on the instructions of the local mayor for having the temerity to wear burkhas on the beach. Now we have the forces of justice exposing the most vulnerable people in society to the harshness of winter.
I have enormous respect for law enforcement officers across the world and the difficult and dangerous job they do. However as the police become more subject to political control, they cease to become upholders of justice and become oppressors of the poor and needy, particularly in the current right-wing leaning climate.
This is a failure of leadership to stand up for the rights of people who cannot defend themselves and it makes me ashamed of my former profession. Sceptics might say that it would never happen in the UK but how long before a rogue Police and Crime Commissioner makes a similar demand of a Chief Constable? What confidence do we have that they would have the moral courage to refuse to comply and risk their job? In the post-Brexit and Post-Trump world, how many votes are there in standing up for the rights of the minorities? How much public support would a Police Chief have if they did stand up to be counted?
Is the more likely response that they were only obeying orders? Where have we heard that before?
Today I have heard first-hand accounts from a volunteer who reports that the Gendarmerie are arresting anyone caught giving blankets to the refugees. Aid workers are forced to play cat and mouse with police snatch squads as they use the cover of darkness between 2 and 5am to try to smuggle sleeping bags to the shivering masses. I have not seen this breach of human rights highlighted anywhere in the mainstream media.
In the freezing Winter of 1954 refugees still homeless after WWII died literally frozen to the pavements of Paris. This scandal passed without comment until the legendary Resistance fighter and priest, Abbé Pierre pricked the nation’s conscience with a heart-rending radio broadcast which generated a 2 million franc donation from Charlie Chaplin. This led to a tidal wave of support totalling 500 million francs which resulted in the creation of the now famous Emmaus charity for the homeless.
President Jimmy Carter once said “The measure of a society is found in how they treat their weakest and most helpless citizens”. The Western world is hardly leading by example at the moment. Where is the media reporting of this humanitarian crisis, Where does accountability lie?…. and where is today’s Abbé Pierre?
Anyone wishing to send sleeping bags or other aid to the refugees of Paris can contact me on email@example.com for details of the aid organiser… Thank you for your support.
Brian Langston QPM LLb(Hons) MBA is a writer, coach and consultant on leadership and diversity. He was formerly Assistant Chief Constable (Operations) for Thames Valley Police and is now the Executive Director of the iLeadership Academy.