Thousands of French police have staged a "march of anger" in Paris against working conditions and low morale in a protest on a scale not seen in almost 20 years.
The French force is exhausted after months of yellow vest violence which rocked major cities every weekend and saw protesters target officers, themselves accused of heavy-handed use of stun grenades that left dozens of yellow vests maimed.
Unions warn that morale is at rock bottom pointing out that the suicide rate is sky high – some 52 officers have taken their own lives since January, compare to an already high annual average of 42. The government launched a crisis plan last month to tackle the issue.
Organisers said 27,000 police of all levels and union persuasions came together at Bastille for the first time since 2001 when they took to the streets en masse in outrage at the release of an armed robber who had murdered two officers.
"We’re here to fight for our working conditions and above all to pay tribute to our colleagues who took their own lives," said Damien, a 24-year old officer in the Paris transport police.
Cyril Benoit, an officer with 20 years of service, said the yellow vest protests had take a huge toll on police. In the past two years, one officer in his riot police unit in Auxerre, Burgundy, had committed suicide and another female officer had attempted to take her own life.
He blamed "physical and psychological fatigue" and pressure from senior officers to meet targets.
"There’s always been a bit of pressure on the police but never like this," he told AFP.
Another, Antoine, 40, said the government had failed to sufficiently defend officers accused of brutality during the yellow vest clashes.
"Television keeps replaying videos of (allegedly brutal) police actions but you don’t see the paving stone that flew overhead seconds before," he said.
“There is a deep sense that things can’t go on like this,” said David Bars, secretary-general of the police chief union SCPN-Unsa.
“All the unions are aware that the police force is ill.”
Police say they say they are chronically under-equipped to deal with rising crime and complain of lenient sentences against offenders.
An MP’s report in July lamented police stations that had been "abandoned by the state” and “ageing” police cars.
“There is a real loss of authority,” said Patrice Ribeiro of Synergie-officiers union.
“In some areas, we know it has become impossible to intervene without sparking riots. Police are ambushed and targeted by mortar fire with a desire to kill."
Attacks against police have shot up 15 per cent this year in the wake of the yellow vest revolt and violent clashes with black bloc anarchists.
A major bone of contention is the government’s plan to radically overhaul France’s pension system, which could see police lose perks that see them gain a year in pension points for every five worked.
Christophe Castaner, the interior minister, has pledged that the new system will “take into consideration the dangerousness of their profession”.
But unions are enraged at his “two-track” suggestion that non-operational members of the national police, who are civil servants answerable to the interior ministry, “are not confronted with the same reality” and thus should not expect the same perks.
Police protesters also complain that they have still not been paid for 23 million hours of overtime.
Mr Castaner on France 2 pointed out that the police budget is being raised by “a billion euros (£890m)” during the five-year term of President Emmanuel Macron, who has promised to recruit an extra 10,000 officers.
It is also rolling out a €300 million plan to renovate dilapidated police stations.
Under a 1948 rule, police are forbidden to stage strikes.
“The government, which underestimated our power to cause problems, is about to feel it and it will have to listen,” said Fabien Vanhemeleryck, secretary general of the Alliance police union.
A poll in August suggested that more than three-quarters of the French had faith in the police.
A small yellow vest demonstration in the presence of high-profile gilet jaune Eric Drouet took place at Bastille to complain against police violence but protesters were kept away from police.