Riot police officers detain a youth during a student demonstration in Lyon, central France. Photograph: Laurent Cipriani/AP
I never thought I'd write in defence of French riot police. However, something truly awful has happened to the CRS (Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité). Indeed, the ones we love to hate have just been denied by official decree that most cherished and antic pleasure, a single glass of wine (or cider or beer) with their meals. When you think about it, there are few delights in life more simple than a glass of wine with your meal. And the fact that the CRS used to enjoy theirs while on duty doesn't change the argument much.
This latest ban (after the burqa, the rouge!) is yet another sign of a rampant righteousness taking hold in our society. It's commonly said that a moderate amount of wine, beer or cider digested with a meal, especially by people who have a physical job doesn't affect their ability to perform. Riot police are no surgeons; they are muscles in boots and helmets. Their job is to look scary and to use urban guerrilla tactics in order to protect peaceful demonstrators from the occasional troublemakers. You come across them all the time in the streets of Paris on demonstration days: these are relatively young men, fit and fast. A glass of wine gulped down with a hachis Parmentier is not going to cloud their judgment (they obey orders anyway) or make their legs wobble. It won't make them more aggressive; if anything, it might actually make them a little more humane.
The CRS are futuristically clad manga-like characters, and coming into contact with them is a rite of passage for first time demonstrators in France. One of the first slogans you learn as a French adolescent is "CRS – SS", courtesy of the May '68 events. However, this ferocious association couldn't be further from the truth. Created in 1944 by Gaullist France, the French riot police mainly consisted of former resistance members, many of them communists. During a demonstration in Marseille in 1947 organised by the Communist party, the CRS refused to intervene. They were swiftly reorganised. Since then, their zeal at neutralising agitateurs has depended in large part on the personality of the prefects, interior minister, and the political character of the government. In 1968, apart from one unrelated accident, there were no casualties among students: a real achievement considering the level of tension that reigned in the capital and the whole country at the time.
What's certain is that the CRS do not do an easy job. They are the buffers of our democracy, and we need them during every spat and argument we have with the government so that things don't degenerate into chaos. And for this, I believe they deserve their daily glass of wine.
This ban sounds like another ill-advised Sarkozy intitiative, the kind a teetotaller who loves nothing more than the chocolate mousse and raspberry yogurts he might serve up after and excitable meeting with anti-alcohol lobbyists.
Let's leave the last word to Charles Baudelaire who, in The Soul of Wine, wrote:
"For I feel a boundless joy when I flow Down the throat of a man worn out by his labour His warm breast is a pleasant tomb Where I'm much happier than in my cold cellar …
I shall light up the eyes of your enraptured wife And give back to your son his strength and his colour I shall be for that frail athlete of life The oil that hardens a wrestler's muscles."
And before I'm accused of inciting debauchery, let me say that, like all pleasures in life, this one should be enjoyed in moderation. Cheers.