For years, French police unions argued that officers should get broader discretion over when to shoot at fleeing motorists. Time and again, lawmakers refused.

Finally in 2017, after a string of terrorist attacks, the government relented. Eager to be tough on crime and terrorism, lawmakers passed a bill allowing officers to fire on motorists who flee traffic stops, even when the officers are not in immediate danger.

“For politicians, because this was real politics, it was hard to say no,” recalled Frédéric Lagache, a leader of the police union Alliance Police who pushed forcefully for the law.

Since that law passed, the number of fatal police shootings of motorists has increased sixfold, according to data compiled recently by a team of French researchers and shared with The New York Times. Last year, 13 people were shot dead in their vehicles, a record in a country where police killings are rare.

The law has come under fresh scrutiny after a police officer killed a teenage driver during a traffic stop this week, shocking the country and igniting street protests and riots. Several lawmakers have called for a repeal or revision of the law.

Union leaders, including those who supported the law, say training on what it permitted was woefully inadequate.

“We received no training whatsoever,” Mr. Lagache said. He and other police officers interviewed in the weeks and months before this most recent fatal shooting said their classes had been mostly online — video tutorials showing the situations in which police officers may or may not shoot — and covered theoretical topics that failed to capture the realities of the field.

“We still have colleagues today who open fire because they’re convinced that they’re protected under the law, when they’re not,” said Yves Lefebvre, a union leader who helped negotiate the bill. “There’s inevitably some collateral damage.”

French police officials did not return messages seeking comment on how officers are trained. Union members have an incentive to blame the training, rather than their officers or a law they had supported.

A report last year by the Cour des Comptes, France’s highest public audit institution, showed that nearly 40 percent of officers failed to comply with a requirement to attend three shooting training sessions. That is separate from the 2017 law and carries no penalties if ignored.

Following the recent shooting, France’s interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, denied that fatal shootings at fleeing motorists increased following the law’s passage, a contention that was refuted by the data compiled by the French researchers.

Policing experts and lawyers say the law and the spate of police shootings that followed are the unintended consequences of the French government’s response to terrorism and to an increase in threats against the police.

“The law was passed to achieve expected effects,” said Marie-France Monéger, the former head of a powerful police body that investigates police forces, referring to battling terrorism. “Then you have the unexpected effects and then you have the perverse effects.”

Suicide bombings in Paris in 2015, a deadly truck attack in Nice in 2016 and a firebombing that seriously wounded two police officers that year in suburban Paris prompted calls for tougher security. The bill, which also allowed officers to shoot at fleeing suspects deemed a danger, passed with an overwhelming majority in February 2017.

But firing on moving or speeding cars is a tactic that many cities have banned as too dangerous. New York Police Department officers, for example, have been generally prohibited from firing at cars since 1972.

“What France is doing is in many ways an anomaly,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a group in Washington whose members are police executives from major city, county and state forces.

In the past, French police officers were allowed to fire on vehicles only when the officers were in immediate danger, the same right of self-defense as any citizen. Police unions, a powerful political force in France, argued, though, that they should have broader authority to fight crime and rules that matched those of the gendarmerie, a French police force with military status.

Now, police can fire when they believe that motorists are likely to endanger lives while fleeing. Officers, the law says, may use their weapons in cases of “absolute necessity and in a strictly proportionate manner.”

Catherine Tzutzuiano, a University of Toulon law professor, said the law’s wording “suggests that officers can use their weapons more easily.”

The bill drew heavy criticism from France’s defender of rights, an independent government ombudsman who monitors civil rights, and the National Advisory Committee on Human Rights, a United Nations-affiliated group that advises the French government. Both warned that the law’s vague wording might lead to more fatal shootings.

Those shootings increased almost immediately after it went into effect. In the first nine months, the police shot and killed five motorists, more than in the five years before the law.

“In 2017, the wrong message was sent. We said, ‘Now, you can shoot at cars,’” Laurent-Franck Liénard, a lawyer who is defending most of the 13 police officers involved in last year’s fatal traffic stops, said in an interview in February. “That was total nonsense.” He said most officers involved were young recruits in their mid-20s who received limited shooting training.

Since 2017, Mr. Liénard said in the same interview, the situation has improved. Officers are more careful to fire only in self-defense, he said.

Mr. Liénard said the officer involved in this week’s shooting, whom he also represents, “shot within the framework of the law.” That officer has not been identified publicly.

The rising trend in fatal traffic stops since 2017 “is really a big issue, which has probably made France the European champion for lethal shootings on vehicles,” said Sebastian Roché, a policing expert at the country’s National Center for Scientific Research, who compiled the data and shared it with The Times.

A research paper on the topic is under peer review by an American journal, he said, adding that the underlying figures on shootings and traffic stops come from the French police.

On average, France has recorded one fatal shooting every two and a half months since the law passed, compared with one every 16 months before the law — a sixfold increase.

French authorities and police unions have argued that this surge is driven mostly by a growing number of drivers who refuse to stop and endanger the lives of others. The number of such dangerous refusals to stop recorded by the police doubled from 2012 to 2021, according to official police data.

But that does not explain the sixfold increase in the rate of shootings.

The researchers also ruled out that the surge could be attributed to an overall rise in crime. They noted that, unlike with the French national police, the number of fatal traffic stops had barely increased in the gendarmerie, the French military police force, and in the police forces of Belgium and Germany, two countries with relatively similar homicide rates to France.

“There’s no doubt about it,” Mr. Roché said. “The 2017 law giving more powers to the police is the cause of the increase in fatal police shootings.”

It remains unclear what training the officer involved in Tuesday’s killing had received. In a video of the incident, the officer can be seen on the driver’s side of a car, pointing a gun into the vehicle. When the car started to pull away, he shot the driver, who was pronounced dead an hour later. The police have identified him only as Nahel M., a 17-year-old French citizen of Algerian and Moroccan descent.

A French prosecutor said on Thursday that, even under the 2017 law’s provisions, the officer had not met the legal standard to open fire. The officer was placed under formal investigation on charges of “voluntary homicide.”

Prominent politicians called for a review of the law. And an editorial in Le Monde, one of France’s leading newspapers, called for changes to the law.

“How can a problem that arose in 2017 and has since been confirmed by the facts every year be addressed politically only today,” said Marine Tondelier, the head of the French Greens, “just because a 17-year-old boy died and we have a video.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *