The French Third Republic introduced more guarantees of civil liberties than any previous French regime, yet allowed no access for citizens to challenge police violence and illegality in court. Although the Penal Code provided the legal basis for prosecuting public officials, French police personnel almost never faced criminal investigation. Historical debates on the Third Republic have long discussed the discrepancies between the high-minded republican ideals and the limitations on citizens’ rights and liberties, but often see this justified as necessary for the defense of the Republic and its values. This study shows that the continued practice of not prosecuting police personnel placed the French Third Republic increasingly at odds with developments in other European countries, as not only British, and but also Prussian courts, prosecuted a growing number of serious cases of police misconduct between the 1870s and 1914. This article reveals how police managers and the judiciary (public prosecutors and investigating magistrates) collaborated to deflect citizens’ allegations of serious police illegality in order to keep police personnel away from the dock; it shows that French citizens found themselves in a weaker position when confronting police misconduct and illegality than their British or Prussian counterparts; it also highlights the significant role of French civil liberties activists and organizations, most notably the League of Human Rights, in pushing for more transparency and accountability around policing. The article argues that the continued absence of police accountability to the law in the French Third Republic was not rooted in incomplete republicanisation of the police, but in the republican values and priorities themselves. The findings provide the basis for further comparative research into the how different political regimes responded – in the past and in the present – to public demands for criminal allegations against police personnel to be heard in open court.
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