Two police officers from France's Anti-Crime Brigade were among the first to arrive at the scene of the Bataclan concert hall massacre — one of several terror attacks that brought Paris to a standstill on November 13, 2015.
The police chief and his driver — who were wearing standard bulletproof vests and carrying light service weapons — spotted one of the gunmen and managed to kill him despite having only their handguns. But, ill-equipped against heavy fire from the assault rifles of the other assailants, they were forced to retreat and await backup.
But officers with the BAC, as it's known by its French acronym, will soon be carrying their own assault rifles, as a plan to upgrade the force's equipment kicks in over the coming weeks.
After promising the upgrade several months ago, France's Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve announced that BAC officers would now be toting similar guns and armor as the country's special intervention forces, including assault rifles, ballistic shields, thicker bulletproof vests, and bulletproof helmets.
"Before late February, and at the latest in early March, 204 of these sub-machine guns will have been delivered to BAC officers in and around Paris," the minister told police chiefs, who had gathered at the ministry to hear the announcement.
Launched in 1994 to fight crime in cities, the BAC today plays a central role in the country's efforts to fight terrorism, which Cazeneuve described Monday as "a specific kind of organized crime."
"Arrival of the new equipment for BAC officers at the 20th Arrondissement police precinct, in Paris."
The French police's new assault rifle is the G36 — an automatic rifle made by German gun manufacturer Heckler & Koch. Already used by the French police's GIPN tactical units, the submachine gun can fire 750 rounds a minute and has a firing range of 500 meters. It can also pierce through heavy flak jackets — such as the ones worn by the Kouachi brothers, who carried out the deadly January 2015 attack against French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo.
The HK G36 being tested.
Eventually, said Cazeneuve, every police patrol unit in France will be equipped with the HK G36. All officers will also be given helmets, he added.
This massive weapons upgrade — the cost of which has not been made public — is part of the "BAC-PSIG 2016 Plan," an ambitious campaign to recruit new personnel and upgrade the equipment of French police officers. As part of the plan, the government expects to recruit 1,000 new police officers in 2016.
Cazeneuve unveiled the plan on October 30, two weeks before the November 13 attacks.
"There is only one legitimate authority [...], that of the state. Wherever this authority is challenged, in the neighborhoods and territories where it may have seemed to be in decline, the Republic will take back its rights," Cazeneuve said at the time.
The G36 was tested in 2005 by a reporter from Tireurs ("shooters"), a French magazine about firearms. The expert described the gun as a lightweight, reliable weapon, perfectly suited to "desert areas where the sun and heat crush men and their equipment."
This glowing profile is somewhat at odds with reports from the German army, which may soon be getting rid of its own G36s. Some German soldiers claim that the gun malfunctions when overheated, and as a result, doesn't shoot straight.
As well as bigger guns and better protective gear, BAC officers may soon be getting a new fleet of vehicles, equipped with "secure trunks" to stash their new weapons.
According to some sources the equipment upgrades alone will cost the French taxpayer 43 million euros ($46 million). It is not yet known how much the recruitment of new personnel and associated training expenditure will cost.
Cazeneuve also announced the government would recruit an extra 550 officers to be deployed alongside the monitoring and intervention units of the Gendarmerie, a unit of the army that carries out policing duties.
"The deployment will start soon, and will continue all through 2016," a spokesperson for the Gendarmerie told VICE News, declining to give any further information on the deployment of the extra staff.
According to French daily Le Figaro, these heavily armed "supergendarmes" will be able to intervene anywhere in the country "within 20 minutes" of receiving a call. In a crisis, they would be charged with containing the threat until the elite RAID and BRI units show up.
Cazeneuve said that authorities were working on a plan to better coordinate these separate intervention units. "The security of France is at stake," he said.
In the past year, authorities in France have had to respond to several terror attacks, and a number of terror plots have been thwarted. In light of the terror threat, the government has introduced several changes to the rules regulating policing.
Following a request by the police unions, law enforcement officers are now allowed to carry their weapons when they are not officially on the job, as long as the state of emergency is maintained. (It was declared after the November attacks and has not been lifted yet.)
But despite their enhanced arsenal, sociologist Fabien Jobard — a researcher at the Marc Bloch Center, in Berlin — said that French police were not in danger of becoming militarized just yet.
"As long as these rifles remain in the trunk of the cars, it won't make much of a difference to day-to-day policing, even in the banlieues [suburbs]," he told VICE News on Tuesday.
"You have to look at the other signs, such as crew set-up, how the chain of command works, if the police is moving to a commando logic," he said.
Another key factor, according to Jobard, is the debate surrounding the legal definition of self-defense, which was sparked by the January 2015 attacks. Right now, French police officers can open fire only to defend themselves. "If this notion is relaxed, then some of these fears may be justified," he noted.
"When it comes to the French police, all fears are legitimate," conceded Jobard. "You've only got to look at the way Flash-balls have been used in the last decade, [causing] pretty serious damages."
Flash-balls are non-lethal weapons that fire rubber balls. Initially meant to be stored in the trunks of the BAC's vehicles, these handheld weapons have today become individual, highly visible [service] weapons, explained Jobard.
"Of course, G36 rifles will not go down the same route — they will remain team weapons that can only be used if authorized by the team chief," the researcher noted. "But the policy regulating the use of these weapons will need to be very restrictive and limited to Bataclan-style interventions."
When contacted by VICE News about the policy, the Interior Ministry did not respond in time for publication. Sources familiar with the matter explained that the policy might not yet have been set.
"In the speech from October 30 [that announced the BAC-PSIG 2016 Plan], there were positive signs, such as an emphasis on training, practice and code of conduct," Jobard said.
Meanwhile, the deputy secretary general of the Unité SGP-FO police union told AFP that it wouldn't "hide its pleasure" over the new equipment, deeming it "absolutely necessary."
"Now we need officials who are using this equipment to be able to use it, so we will have to make a big effort in the area of training. That will be today's challenge," he told AFP.
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