Robert Ménard, the far-right mayor of the southern French town of Béziers, has come under fire for a recent poster campaign boasting of his police force's use of new 7.65 caliber handguns.
"From now on the police have a new friend," reads the poster, which also features a blown-up image of a silver semi-automatic weapon adorned with the French flag. Below the image are the words: "Armed 24/7," and the number of the police hotline.
Unlike the US, where most police officers carry guns, French municipal police forces must first obtain the necessary permissions from the government before they can be armed.
Ménard, who was elected mayor of Béziers in 2014 with the support of France's far-right National Front party, has defended the campaign, calling it "appropriate" in light of the recent terror attacks in Paris.
"It's obvious to me that the police should be armed," he told VICE News. "Especially with what's going on right now… the police need to be armed, and people need to know that officers are carrying weapons."
To arm or not to arm
The debate over whether or not municipal police officers should carry firearms was revived last month after gunman Amédy Coulibaly, who had links with Islamist militants abroad, shot and killed unarmed municipal police officer Clarisse Jean-Philippe in the Paris suburb of Montrouge. Coulibaly then went on to kill four hostages at a kosher supermarket before he was shot dead by police. The attacks were coordinated with two other gunmen who, in the same week, stormed the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, killing 12.
While municipal police officers in France are allowed to carry firearms, not all of them do. In order for the municipal police force to carry firearms, the mayor must put in a request, which then has to be approved by the federal government.
Following the attack in Montrouge, several French mayors and police unions petitioned the government to arm the municipal police with the same weapons carried by the national police.
The Municipal Police Defense Union (SDPM) has asked its unarmed members not to patrol the streets unless they are first issued a handgun. Speaking to French daily Le Figaro on January 16, SDPM General Secretary Richard Mousset said that, "Every mission can potentially require a firearm. We've had people injured by bullets over a parking row."
Alain Bauer, a professor of criminology at the Paris National Conservatory for Arts and Crafts (CNAM), a public higher education institution in Paris, estimated that almost half of French municipal officers carry guns.
"All municipal police officers are armed, but they don't all carry a gun," he told VICE News. "They can also carry batons, sprays and Tasers."
In addition to the national police and the gendarmerie — a branch of the French armed forces — most cities and medium-size French towns have a municipal police force, which is under the direct authority of the mayor.
"The creation of an armed municipal police is often a campaign platform," said Bauer. "In order to arm municipal police officers, you have to prove it is necessary for the police to patrol at night or in sensitive areas. If this is the case, municipal officers can obtain a firearm permit."
In the same month of the attacks in Paris that shook France, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve unveiled plans to provide municipal police officers with 4,000 handguns and 8,000 bulletproof vests — an initiative applauded by the SDPM police union.
Despite widespread support for government plans to reinforce security, many in France have criticized and ridiculed the mayor's campaign in Béziers. According to French daily Libération, the SDPM has described the posters as "very awkward," and even "scandalous," and have told the French public that municipal police officers were not looking for "a new friend."
"Robert Ménard has failed to understand the ethics or responsibility and of the Republic, which are particularly relevant given the current context," Cazeneuve told the station.
But Ménard hit back at the interior minister's comments, telling VICE News, "He's the irresponsible one."
"Doesn't he have anything better to do?" Ménard asked. "His job is to ensure the safety of all French people, mine is to ensure the safety of the Béziers residents and police. I am doing my job, he ought to do his."
Ménard added he had been shocked by the reaction of those who deemed the campaign provocative.
"It's an advertising campaign, not a 500-page state thesis on the armament of municipal police officers," he said. "It's a poster that was designed to be eye-catching and it is eye-catching."
Since becoming mayor, Ménard, a former journalist who founded the Paris-based nongovernment organization Reporters Without Borders in 1985, has made a number of controversial moves. These include banning halal school dinners, ignoring an official request to dismantle a religious Christmas scene in the town hall, making it illegal to dry laundry on balconies, and imposing an 11pm to 6am curfew on children under 13.
VICE News' Pierre Longeray contributed to this article.
Follow Mélodie Bouchaud on Twitter: @meloboucho