Illustration of a cat wearing a suit.

Valentin Gendrot and Thierry Chavant (translated by Frank Wynne)

From time to time, stories of police who have infiltrated activist organisations to gather intel on potential “subversives” are thrust into sharp relief. Among the most prominent are the “sweetheart” assignments, where police form a romantic attachment with someone within one of these organisations, only to disappear once they have the information they need. A tale of somebody infiltrating the police instead comes as a surprise.

That a French journalist named Valentin Gendrot not only did precisely this but also managed to maintain the charade for two years is nothing short of incredible. In 2020, Gendrot turned his experiences into a graphic novel called Flic: The true story of the journalist who infiltrated the police. He did so with the assistance of illustrator Thierry Chavant, whose masterful work creates a bleak yet gripping atmosphere throughout. After creating waves in France for its content and complexities, Flic has been translated into English by Frank Wynne.

It’s a disturbing, shocking, layered, complex and unfortunately unsurprising account of his time – particularly to someone like me, who has spent a lot of time critiquing policing and “law and order” cultures here. Gendrot infiltrated the force by undertaking the mere three months training that enabled him to become an assistant security officer – an “adjoint de sécurité”, not dissimilar to Victoria’s PSOs. The reader is confronted with various portraits of police brutality, misogyny, racism, sexism and other types of marginalisation reinforced to keep the machismo within the ranks alive and well.

The abuse of power via everything from issuing frivolous fines to beating up “bastards” – mainly migrant community members – is a constant theme. In the opening pages, we are confronted by the brutalisation of a migrant teenager just two weeks into Gendrot’s posting to the 19th arrondissement, and the resultant “cop code” and distasteful bureaucracy that accompanies it. When we consider the recent police shooting of 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk in Paris and the riots that have broken out since, Gendrot’s work brings into sharp relief how such a situation could come about.

Gendrot’s portrait of the forces is not completely unsympathetic. Police mental health and suicide rates, as well as finding yourself resigned to the internal culture the longer you stay in there, are discussed within the text. There can be no mistaking Gendrot’s sobering yet masterfully conveyed message though: when a system is this polluted and broken, can it even pretend to be serving anyone? 

Scribe Publications, 144pp, $39.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 5, 2023 as "Flic".

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