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An Unprecedented Number of Young People in France Want to Become Cops

The number of applicants to become police officers in France has risen by 42 percent since the terror attacks in Paris in 2015 — but unemployment plays a part, too.

by Pierre-Louis Caron
Mar 14 2016, 11:32am

Foto di Etienne Rouillon/VICE News

Young French men and women are flocking to do something that they've never done before in such numbers: Become police officers. 

On Thursday, 35,663 people took part in the French national police entrance exam, or 42 percent more candidates than last year. France's Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve took to Twitter Wednesday to wish the candidates "good luck" on the test.

The entrance exam is part of the exceptional recruitment plan unveiled by the interior ministry on December 22, 2015, five weeks after gunmen killed 130 people in a series of terror attacks in and around Paris.

According to police human resources managers quoted by French news channel France Info, the number of candidates applying this year is "unprecedented."

According to a police recruitment officer based in the southern city of Toulouse, the massive increase in would-be police officers should be seen as a "deep-rooted, long-term trend," rather than a passing reaction to the attacks that paralyzed the country in 2015.

"There is undoubtedly a post-terror attack effect, but it is short-lived — two weeks at the most," the officer, who requested to remain anonymous, said in a phone interview. "We saw it in January 2015, and again in November with a high number of calls, and then things calmed down."

The French army also wants to increase its personnel, and has announced plans to raise the number of reserve forces from 28,000 to 40,000 by 2018. These new recruits will help the army carry out domestic patrol missions like Operation Sentinel, in which troops deployed to sensitive sites in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks n January 2015.

Related: Young French People Are Flocking to Enlist in the Wake of Paris Attacks

Opinion polls carried out in the wake of the January and November 2015 attacks showed that French people had more trust in the army and the police. According to a January survey carried out by pollster Odoxa for French daily Le Parisien, 80 percent of those interviewed said they trusted the country's police and military.

The majority of those interviewed were also in favor of equipping local cops with a better arsenal, and prolonging the state of emergency, which is due to expire on May 26.

In fact, the police's most recent recruitment video features images from the scene of the November attacks — including shots of first responders assisting victims, the arrival of special forces on the scene, and bullet holes in café windows.

Another recruitment video, which the police plan to unveil on May 9, includes sequences that were shot on Place de la République, the Paris square that became a symbol of national unity in the wake of the attacks.

But despite the big recruitment drive and tens of thousands of candidates, only 2,800 hopefuls will make the cut.

In order to become a police officer in France, one must be a French national with no criminal record, in good health, and be aged 18 to 35.

"There are two reasons that can explain this spike in candidates," said a 25-year-old student, who passed the exam for police commissioner in March and wished to remain anonymous. "There's already a pull factor, with the announcement of an exceptional exam, and then a more factual excitement, linked to the November attacks," he told VICE News.

With high levels of unemployment among young people, the promise of stable employment might also explain such a high turnout, said the recruitment officer in Toulouse.

Candidates who pass the initial exam must then undertake a physical evaluation. Those who pass the latter are then interviewed, to assess their knowledge of foreign languages and their reason for wanting to join the police force. They are also evaluated on their ability to cope with stress.

The 2,800 candidates who make the grade will then undergo 12 months of training before they officially become "gardiens de la paix" (French for "keepers of the peace"). After an internal selection process, a small number of new recruits are invited to join special police forces, including the rapid intervention units, roughly equivalent to SWAT teams in the US, that played a major role in the Paris attacks and their aftermath.  

Related: More Cops With Bigger Guns Will Stop Terrorists, Says French Government

In a statement published last week, the SGP police union said it was "satisfied" with the government's exceptional recruitment drive, but added that "efforts remain to be made."

Unions have also called on the interior ministry to raise the hazard bonus for officers and to make public transport free to police, particularly in light of the thwarted terror attack on board a train from Brussels to Paris, back in August.

Follow Pierre-Louis Caron on Twitter: @pierrelouis_c

This article originally appeared in VICE News' French edition.

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