Yellow Vests: the French art of repressing demonstrations

Created by
Jane H. Caelinnan
vendredi 25 janvier 2019
Yellow Vests demonstrations have received only more and more repression by French government. President Macron, attacked in his legitimacy, seems not to have any political answer to the crisis, but tear gas and violence.

Since November 17th, the Yellow Vest movement, supported by a majority of the population according to polls, is rising in France. Protesters from all around the country are asking for fairer taxes, sharing wealth, and more direct democracy. Every Saturday, demonstrations are happening in many cities, and so far the response from the government has essentially been repressive, and has even worsened in the last couple of weeks.

The violent French authorities’ strategy to maintain order

More than 1,700 people have been injured, of which at least 82 seriously, and 10 fatalities have been confirmed since the beginning of the movement. (A constantly-updated list can be found here).

Fatalities were mainly due to road accidents, where angry drivers, blocked in their cars, drove over protesters. But one of the fatalities was caused by the use of police weapons: an 80-year-old lady in Marseille was closing the shutters of her apartment when she received a tear-gas grenade in the face. Before January 8th, 5,339 people got arrested, of which 1,234 were released with no further action. The following Saturday (January 12th) 80,000 police officers were deployed against 50,000 protesters (official numbers).

While violence sometimes came from the protesters, cases of police enforcement abuse have been so widely reported that Amnesty international published a statement in December about this alarming situation:

“French authorities must exercise restraint when policing demonstrations expected on Saturday and avoid any repetition of the injuries caused by their extremely heavy-handed response to protests by the “gilets jaunes” and high school movements.

“Police used rubber bullets, stingball grenades and tear gas against largely peaceful protesters who did not threaten public order and the organisation has documented numerous instances of excessive use of force by police.”

Despite such calls from NGOs, the government still carries on its violent strategy to maintain order. On Saturday the 12th of January, 10 additional persons were seriously injured, even though the government had declared that the demonstrations were pacifist.

Excessive use of force by police also threatens the weakest and most defenseless of protestors, documented by numerous of videos. A disabled man was dragged out of his wheelchair and thrown on the ground by a policeman, and more recently, a woman, not resisting to the police, was also hit in the back of her neck and dragged on the floor, apparently unconscious, over dozens of meters. Police enforcement was also recorded abusively hitting an elderly man sitting at a bus stop and not fighting, while his daughter is desperately screaming and begging them to “please stop”.
Not only protesters but also journalists got harmed, threatened and insulted by the police. A commandant of police enforcement, recently decorated by the Légion d’Honneur (highest reward in France) was seen literally assaulting protesters.

As the list of all suspicions of abuse from the French police on protesters and journalists is very long, we recommend to check the Twitter page of journalist David Dufresnes, who is reporting to the Ministry every case of suspected abuse, while cross-checking to avoid double counting or false reports. He has currently recorded more than 300 cases, a number that increases drastically every Saturday (+50 between the 5th and the 12th of January). In partnership with him, the online information website Mediapart has just set up a page to improve the readability of his survey.

Those abuses are not only due to isolated “violent” policemen, but are in fact part of an overall strategy. In this video, one can see protesters who were coming to help a seemingly unconscious person on the ground, after he got hit by a water cannon, getting themselves targeted by the water cannon and by several offensive grenades.

This shocking situation partly comes from the French authorities’ strategy to maintain order, which relies on two mottos: a mandatory use of force and a proportional answer to threat. Many countries have long ago abandoned this strategy and developed newer approaches closer to the German “Deskalation” (de-escalation), which is based on crowd psychology, pacification of crowds, and Anti-Konflikt-Teams.

In “the mandatory use of force”, one of the main problems is the use of allegedly “non-lethal” weapons such as the LBD rubber-ball guns (similar to “flash-ball” guns). Most of the serious injuries were indeed inflicted by LBD. Supposedly those balls should only be shot close to the ground but at least 12 people have already lost an eye, including a 15 year-old kid. Actually, already 10 teenagers (15-18 year old) have either lost an eye, or got their jaw or forehead fractured. Photographs and journalists also claim having been directly targeted by police forces. On the 12th of January, a photographer got his knee broken, resulting in 45 days of sickness leave:

“I was clearly identifiable in the middle of the protesters scattered by the tear gas. They aimed at me, and it touched my knee.”

Again the same day, three people have been hit in the face: a 15 year-old boy, doing some shopping in Strasbourg is now disfigured, a 28-year-old man was put in an artificial coma, and another protester (a fireman) got shot from behind, and is now showing signs of paralysis after a coma.
Tear gas grenades (8,000 of them were used on December 1st alone) and sting-ball (désencerclement) grenades are also extensively and abusively used. A tear gas grenade was found in the hood of a little girl. The hot grenade burned her coat, while luckily the girl was not injured. Her family was just passing by and was not demonstrating. While tear gas grenades are not supposed to be shot directly towards protesters, several videos show them being shot on clearly pacific, sometimes seating, protesters.

Sting-ball grenades are explosive “rubber-ball” style grenades that, upon initiation, eject rubber balls into a radius surrounding the device. Those grenades are offensive grenades and are supposed to be used only when the police is surrounded by protesters, to break an issue, in a context of self defense. 800 of those grenades were thrown on the crowd on December 1st alone. Additionally, on that same day, 339 of the used sting-ball grenades were from the controversial GLI-F4 type. Those grenades are recognized as dangerous, even by police unions, as one of their older model killed the famous protester Rémi Fraisse during demonstrations in 2014. The stocks of GLI-F4 grenades were supposed to be emptied, and never used again, but in the context of massive demonstrations, the government might not keep its word. France is the only country in the world to use such grenades against protesters, resulting in numerous terrible injuries and at least 4 lost hands (including the right hand of a 21 year-old who came to demonstrate with his family), and people are pressing charges against the State. One man also lost his hearing ability due to the deafening sound of those grenades.

The extreme tension which is taking place right now in France can also be perceived by the use of dozens of armored vehicles with gas, in the streets of Paris, and by some policemen who have also recently been seen with assault rifles inside of the demonstrations. The government is now sending special services such as the BAC (Brigade anti-criminelle) or the army (gendarmerie) against protesters. Those forces are not specialists of maintaining order, but are indeed usually sent to arrest and fight against dangerous criminals and terrorists, which contributes to the violence escalation.

So far, 78 investigations (over more than 300 requests of investigations) have been opened by the service in charge of investigating police misconducts. No sanction has yet been taken against policemen, whereas many protesters have already been sentenced to prison, those condemnations being sometimes only based on Facebook messages. When recently interviewed, the Interior Minister, Christophe Castaner, stated that he “had never seen any policeman attacking the yellow vest protesters”.

When the government and police force flirts with illegality

Shocking images aside, everything is also done to prevent people from demonstrating. Sometimes mask or glasses for tear gas protection are taken away from protestors (to prevent ”face dissimulation”), and police is seemingly confiscating physiological saline (which is illegal). Amnesty International recently raised a statement to remind the basics of demonstration right in France, in particular worrying about this illegal seizures. Some also reported that police prevented the intervention of street medic (volunteers who do first aid inside of demonstrations), by removing their first aid equipment, and sometimes even shooting at them

Protestors get regularly apprehended on simple suspicion. Left activist Julien Coupat got arrested for 30 hours for… having in his car a yellow vest (which is mandatory by law!), paint bombs and a helmet. Some got arrested for having a hammer in their cars, cars which often got searched without any warrant. People got arrested on the charge of being part of “a group aiming at committing violence and degradations”. As being more than 1 person can be considered as being “in a group”, it is very easy for the police to arrest on simple suspicion anyone who just seem to go to a demonstration.

Demonstrations which were not “declared” were also repressed by police enforcement (while International right does not require the declaration of a demonstration, and this in order to prevent any discouragement from exercising this basic right). Recently, the Prime Minister asked for restriction of the right to demonstrate, as well as the possibility of filing protesters who might be violent, to forbid them to demonstrate, as what was done for hooligans (with lots of abuses). Problem: the right to demonstrate is a basic human right, guaranteed by the Human Rights Declaration, while accessing a stadium is not. Such abuses on the freedom to demonstrate were already made during the “State of Emergency” time, a special period when France was targeted by terrorist attacks, where ecologist protestors were prevented to demonstrate during the Paris COP 21, and forced to stay at home. Also there is questions about who is going to decide on who gets on that list. Indeed, for hooligans, it is not the justice, but an administration, not independent, who take such decision, which can clearly lead to abuses. And, unfortunately, the government has announced recently following this dangerous path, criticize in his own majority, but still rushing to pass the law as soon as possible.

During the demonstrations, hospital staff were also asked to record the name of Yellow Vest coming for care, officially in order to track the number of victims. This directive, which was supposed to be temporary is usually only activated in the context of terrorist attacks, as it can clearly endanger the freedom to demonstrate. All of these extreme measures are now possible because of the recent transfer in the normal law of the State of Emergency law by President Macron.

More recently, and as a sign of the borderline behavior of the government, an online money pot aiming at paying lawyer fees for a demonstrator accused of violence against policemen got closed by the company Leetchi after being asked to on television by a Minister; who also asked for the name and data of the donators. Problem: the pot is legal, and it was therefore illegal to close it, as well as to give the names of the donators (which Leetchi refused to do).

A video posted on social networks also rose a scandal in December. A policeman recorded the arrestation of at least 122 kids (the youngest is 12, most of them are around 15-16), on their knees; hands behind their heads, for apparently 4 hours, in the suburb city of Mantes-la-Jolie. In the video, the policeman then states: “Ah! finally a quiet classroom, if your teacher could see this!!” Though some of those kids were suspected of burning car and throwing projectiles on police force, most of them were just running away from tear gas (some of them were even just passing by in the street), as only 20 of them where actually really suspected by the police. Auditions, sometimes not recorded, were conducted without the presence of a lawyer, and kids spend the whole night in the police station, sometimes 15 in a cell designed to contain 5 people.

Arrests of suspects have also gotten out of hand: recently, special forces (RAID), in charge of fighting terrorism just made an intervention at 6 am smashing a yellow vest’s apartment door, and handcuffing him while he was still in his bed with his partner.

The fragile-because-outdated French presidential monarchy

All this danger for the right to demonstrate has to be put in the context of the French Constitution as well as the political context of the presidential election.
The specificity of the French 5th Republic is that the President has large powers such as the right to legifere without the vote of the Parliament (“ordonnances” – used by Macron for his Labour laws). Additionally, while Mr Macron only gathered 23% of the votes (excluding abstention) at the first round of the presidential election, his party owns 54% of the Parliament’s seats. The planned Macron’s reform of the Constitution (decreasing the number of members of parliament by 30% – while France is already one of the poorest country in Europe in terms of MP/inhabitant coverage –, introducing some proportionality in the elections – but not enough to make a change with 15% of the seats –, or limiting the right for the opposition to propose amendments to a law, to cite only few headlines), would concentrate even more power into the President’s hands, announcing a dark future for the plurality of political expression in France. This reform is related to the preparation of a new law against “fake news”, criticized by the entire opposition, as its vague definition of what is a fake news is threatening the freedom of speech. While the far-right leader Marine Le Pen’s popularity is still not decreasing in the polls, and could even achieve its highest score at the coming European elections, the perspective of a President-king with weakened opposing powers is a very scary one.

Also this tension on both side is deepened by several affairs, such as the Benalla case (who was still recently in possession of diplomatic passports and making business in Tchad), the Crase case (a friend of Benalla’s, seemingly paid by Russian oligarchs), the suspicions on Macron’s electoral campaign accounts and fundraisers. Juan Branco, former legal advisor of Wikileaks, also recently revealed, in his non-yet published book Crépuscule, the shadow network which propulsed Macron as a presidential candidate, composed of several billionaires owning France’s biggest media (Le Monde and Paris Match for example).

The yellow vests on the contrary ask for more democracy, less corruption, and less concentration of power by the political government. Some of them for example ask for the possibility to organize citizen referendums, like in Switzerland. Several demonstrations have been dedicated to protest against this political repression, such as the whole Act X of the movement, as well as commemorations for the injured and deceased people. Commemorations during which one of the face of the movement got arrested for illegal demonstration… This situation where both sides seems unable to discuss, seems to only drive for more violence from “both sides”, and is making the future very uncertain.

Jane H. Caelinnan

For the joke, Turkish President Erdogan has condamned the government’s violence against protestors...

Photo: Police Bellecour, by Sylvain Szewczyk, Flickr.

Crédit photo
Police Bellecour, by Sylvain Szewczyk, Flickr.