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French riot police on lifeguard duty

Tuesday 05 August 2008
It may come as a surprise to holidaymakers on France's beaches to know that the lifeguard on duty might be a member of France's elite anti-riot unit, the CRS. Over the summer, hundreds of officers are redeployed to the beaches.

Tuesday 05 August 2008

By Chris Bockman in Lacanau

They're hardened cops, members of France's formidable CRS anti-riot police - but they like the beach, like everyone else. For years, hundreds of CRS officers have been given special summer assignments as lifeguards on France's beaches - a special privilege that the government thinks may now be a little frivolous.

On the popular beach of Lacanau in south-west France, CRS officers recently participated in a helicopter rescue drill, designed to save swimmers sucked out to sea by a lethal current known locally as "baÔnes." Twenty people drowned in Lacanau last year alone, and hundreds needed rescuing. Thatís where the CRS come in - 15 of them are on active duty in Lacanau.

Pascal Rouillier is head of the CRS lifeguard team. He says, "Our key role is to ensure the rule of law is also respected on the beaches, but a big part of our job is saving bathers who get into trouble in the water. BaÔnes are currents that are really dangerous, especially in the last three hours of low tide and during the first three hours of the tide coming in."

Throughout the day the police speed across the dunes in jeeps, warning swimmers to stay nearer to the beach or to move closer to zoned-off swimming areas. Another officer is frequently hovering nearby on a jet ski ready to jump in.

Many swimmers are totally unfamiliar with the baÔne currents despite signs dotted all over the beach. Some, like one German tourist, think the police are overreacting. "I think I am not going so deep into the waves. I am only at the beginning of the water so I think I am old enough to think about it," she told FRANCE 24.

But one CRS officer on duty, Julien Beaumont, disagrees. He points out, " We donít want them to swim here because other bathers may think itís safe and join them."

The French government is now thinking of pulling these temporary lifeguards from the beaches. It thinks riot police could be better used elsewhere in urban trouble spots.

For the local mayors, losing their CRS regiment spells disaster. Jean-Michel David, mayor of Lacanau, says, "Itís totally unacceptable and I am weighing my words. We are trying to offer a publicly funded service that we pay for and have been since 2001. We are trying to provide security for the holiday-makers here and the CRS play a crucial role."

For the police themselves, spending time on the beach is a perk they are reluctant to give up and provides some rare positive publicity: while the rest of the year they are anonymous and menacing-looking, dressed up in riot gear pounding the streets of some of France's more gritty landscapes, on the beach they are much more approachable