Notes on Police Research in France

Jacques de Maillard and Wesley G. Skogan

Until the early 1980s, social science research on policing issues was extremely rare in France. Most of what was written were essays by politicians, investigations by journalists or, more often, memoirs by former police officers. The rare academic works were dominated by narrowly legal approaches describing police powers and their legal framework, or philosophical texts discussing in the abstract what police powers should be. While these publications were of interest, they took little account of police practices in the field and the dynamic features of police organizational life. For many academics, policing in action was a “dirty subject”, one associated with the mundane and sometimes unpleasant daily functions of the State (see Berlière and Lévy 2011). At the same time, the police saw external researchers as excessively critical, engaged in a needless airing of the organizational and political realities they knew well and struggled to deal with.

While police research in the United States began to develop in the early 1960s, in France the start came later, in the 1980s. It was the work of a few pioneers who, in sociology, political science or history, invested in this field of research. Without the list being exhaustive, the research of René Lévy (1987) on the work of the judicial police, Jean-Marc Berlière (1992) on the professionalization of policing under the Third Republic, or Pierre Favre (1990) on the policing of political protests, were the among first social science inquiries in the field. But above all, the emergence of this field of research was led by the sociologist Dominique Monjardet. Coming from the sociology of occupations, where he had already carried out promising work, he stood at the origins of empirical research on public security and public order policing (see for a synthesis see Monjardet, 1996; or Monjardet, 2008).  It should be noted that the development of this field benefited from the creation of units such as the Institut des hautes études de la sécurité intérieure (IHESI)within the Ministry of the Interior in 1989. Research institutes brought together researchers and provided funding, and kindled forums for exchanges between academics and practitioners. The journal Les Cahiers de la sécurité intérieure, published by IHESI, provided an outlet for these activities[i].   

Almost forty years later, the situation is quite different. Research on policing seems solidly established (although see Ocqueteau and Monjardet (2004) on the complex relationship between research and the Ministry of the Interior). It is not possible in this brief review to give a comprehensive overview of research conducted on French policing (see our new book!), but a wide variety of research fields are being explored. These include the emergence of modern police forces, the history of colonial police forces, the professionalization of policing in the contemporary era, changing models of policing, policing during repressive periods in French history (for example, the creation of the Police Nationale during the German occupation of the 1940’s), the feminization of the police, stop and search practices, police relations with young people from minority backgrounds, efforts toward police reform, the introduction of neo-managerialism, the work of oversight bodies, the role of police in maintaining public order, the professional socialization of police officers, political surveillance, and police involvement in partnerships with other organizations and the community. Research on many of these topics have been published in major French social science journals, either generalist (Revue française de sociologie, Revue française de science politique, Sociologie du travail, and Vingtième siècle), or thematic (Champ pénal/Penal Field, Déviance et Société, and Cultures et conflits).

However, there is a paradox. On the one hand, this research has been very open to theories, concepts and methods developed in other countries. This is illustrated by the work co-directed by Jean-Paul Brodeur and Dominique Monjardet (2003) which was devoted to the major texts of Anglo-Saxon research. Research in France has also internationalized and become involved in cross-national comparisons (Berlière et al. 2008; de Maillard and Roché 2009; Fillieule and Della Porta 2006; Houte and Luc 2016; de Maillard 2017). On the other hand, much of this work has not been translated into English, giving much of the world a restricted view of police research in France. Some exceptions to this include the publication in English of Didier Fassin’s (2013) important work. Other authors whose research has appeared in English include Emmanuel Blanchard, Laurent Bonelli, Thierry Delpeuch, Jérôme Ferret, Olivier Fillieule, Jérémie Gauthier, Fabien Jobard, René Lévy, Jean-Paul Brodeur, Benoit Dupont, Christian Mouhanna, Frédéric Ocqueteau, Geneviève Pruvost, Sebastian. Roché, Jacques de Maillard, Vincent Spenlehauer, and Mathieu Zagrodzki.

The need for greater cross-national communication in the policing arena set the agenda for our new book, Policing in France. Our goal was to promote a broader understanding of the police system, police practices, and relations between police and the public in France. The book’s 20 chapters are originally written essays on key topics that draw heavily on recent social science research. The volume is organized in four sections: historical background, organizational features and reforms, changing institutional and political contexts, and police problems and strategies. The book is available now in paperback and electronic form, and the French-language version should appear in 2021.

Jacques de Maillard Professor of Political Science at the University of Versailles-Saint-Quentin, and Director of CESDIP. Email : demaillard@cesdip.fr

Wesley G. Skogan is Professor Emeritus at Northwestern University. Email: skogan@northwestern.edu

See further: de Maillard and Skogan (2021). Policing in France. London: Routledge (released 03 August 2020)


[i] IHESI became the Institut national des hautes études de la sécurité et de la justice in 2009, and then was disbanded in 2020, a sign of fragility of evaluative policy research.

One thought on “Notes on Police Research in France

  1. Pingback: Police Research in France | World Policing

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