Compagnie Républicaine de Sécurité
These are agents of the Compagnie Républicaine de Sécurité (pronounced /kõpaŋi ʁepyblikɛn də sekyʁite/), or CRS /se ɛʁ es/. The average person in France associates the abbreviation CRS with riot police, demonstrations, and other public scenes of disorder, mainly because the CRS is the unit of the regular police that is normally detailed with this type of crowd control. (They also perform duties such as rescue operations and the like, but those activities don't get much media coverage.) They have a widespread but undeservedly sinister reputation, probably thanks to guilt via association, since they are usually seen publicly only in tense situations, such as public demonstrations, riots, and the like. While the media give considerable attention to the occasional instances of police brutality, in many cases the CRS end up more beat up than the crowds they are attempting to control—which is especially significant when you consider how well protected the CRS usually are.
Anyway, here we see CRS agents on a typical assignment, preparing to meet an advancing public demonstration at the place Vendôme. One can usually tell how unruly demonstrators are expected to be by the number and attire of the CRS agents in attendance: for peaceful, good-natured demonstrations, they usually have only a token presence, and they are dressed in their usual uniforms (only slightly more militaristic than standard police officers); but for demonstrations that risk turning ugly, they turn out in full riot gear, with helmets, batons, tear gas, full body padding, and large unbreakable plastic shields—as well as trucks with water cannons in the worst cases. Fortunately, the vast majority of demonstrations are pretty tame (much more peaceful than the television media usually depict them to be), and violence of any kind is relatively rare. In this case, judging by the CRS presence, I'd say that this demonstration was a bit more tense than usual, but nothing really serious.
I'm not sure why the CRS were stopping this demonstration at this particular point, but it may have been because this plaza is ringed by very fancy stores with jewelry and similar merchandise (in fact, the Ritz Hotel is here, and the white canopies over its entrance are visible on the building facade in the distant background). They may have been concerned about the demonstrators getting rowdy and trying to loot the jewelry stores; there is some precedent for their concern, as jewelry stores in this area are sometimes the target of troublemakers and robbers.
I personally have never had any problems with the CRS, nor have I ever seen them beating anyone up (in fact, I've never seen any police brutality in Paris), but it is fashionable to speak disparagingly of them. Perhaps because they represent the state or something. Still, I'd rather be surrounded by CRS agents than by the hoodlums and other scum that they are often forced to deal with.
By the way, this photo is in black and white only because I happened to have black-and-white film loaded into my camera at the time I took it (if you thought it was some sort of dramatic or artistic statement, sorry to disappoint you). I'll try to get a color picture of the CRS one of these days. Incidentally, it's perfectly legal to photograph the police in France (one of the few liberties remaining to photographers in France, in fact, is the freedom to photograph people on the street in public), although they aren't always happy about it.
Click directly on the photo to see a larger version (twice this size). Photographed in 2002.