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Police violence against gilets jaunes sparks broad backlash

France
Violence
Protesters wearing yellow vests hold French flags near the Arc de Triomphe as they take part in a demonstration by the gilets jaunes ('yellow vests') movement in Paris, France, 16 February 2019. Banner reads, 'Stop Police Violence'. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

Since that now infamous Act 2 protest in Paris on the 24th of November in which the first riots erupted on the Champs Elysee, the gilets jaunes, or 'yellow vests', have been met by an increasingly heavy handed police response. The 15th of December in Paris saw this reach an absurd peak when there were 2,200 protestors on the streets and over 8,000 police. They were ubiquitous. On the 15th they were so numerous that they could consistently split groups of gilets jaunes from merging to form a bigger mass. Ironically, this was one of the calmer weekends in terms of crowd numbers, police violence and casseur presence. Other times though the police response was devastating.

Jacques Pezet, fact-checking Journalist for the CheckNews division of Liberation had, as of the 30th of January counted 144 verifiable cases of gilets jaunes and journalists severely injured by the riot police. At least 14 victims have lost an eye and 92 of the 144 have been shot by flashballs. Flashballs are rubber bullets fired from a tube like weapon with the stopping power of a .38 calibre handgun. At close range, as the French CRS (riot police) have used them, they can be particularly damaging. This violent misconduct by the CRS has sparked a wave of activism and created a new movement against police brutality within the gilets jaunes .

Désarmons-les! (DL), which translates to Disarm Them!, are a radical collective aiming to force the CRS to give up their weapons. They were established in 2012, after anti nuclear protesters were left severely injured by police grenades, but have achieved relative prominence in the wake of violence against the gilets jaunes. They try to support the victims of police violence through their legal battles and the trauma they have faced , although they have been doing so since their inception, they say that police have committed an unprecedented level of violence against the gilets jaunes movement between November 2018 and February 2019.

They have helped the victims of police violence in workers’ movements and the resistance to pension reform in recent years, but Ian, an activist with Desarmons-Les! tells me that they think the number of cases has proportionally tripled during recent events. He says this is because the government have taken exceptional measures to counteract the gilets jaunes movement and so have taken a laissez faire attitude to the activities of the riot squad.

A French policeman fires rubber ball gun as clashes erupt during a demonstration by the French 'yellow vests' movement against police violence in Paris, France, 2 February 2019. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

DL aren’t the only people that think this. David Dufresne is a journalist and documentary maker whose work also focuses on police violence. He is closer to the mainstream than the radicals in DL and has argued that the CRS have brought in police from other departments used to dealing with hardened gangsters and drug dealers who consequently are much too trigger happy when it comes to civilians. Dufresne has been tireless in his documentation of police violence and has become one of the most authoritative voices on the issue. Every week, he finds and compiles lists of the injuries, tweeting them out and assiduously tagging the Twitter account of France’s interior ministry which both acts as a signal boost for victims’ complaints and reinforces the viewpoint that both he and DL share; that this violence must be understood as orchestrated by the state, rather than just rogue police actors.

DL, unlike Dufresne, are self described revolutionaries. They don’t believe in ‘engaging in debates about police reform’ because they are not doing this to compromise. Their analysis of present conditions is decidedly Marxist. Ian argues that we are witnessing the ‘collapse of the capitalist economy, and as social conditions continue to get worse’, there will be more civil disobedience and protest movements or ‘revolts’ as he calls them, to come. In the view of DL, the police are being increasingly militarized in anticipation of this.

DL run a website examining the weapons used by the CRS, commenting on developments in policing policy and profiling the victims of violence by police. They also meet in real life and members of their ‘assembly of the wounded’ can be found in Paris, Isle-de-France, Nantes, Toulouse and Bordeaux, among several other cities.

Their work, which centres primarily around the victims rather than the perpetrators of violence, involves the creation of a ‘union of victims of state violence’.They have promoted several marches in Paris throughout January and February where victims of police violence protested together as a gilets jaunes contingent. Although small and certainly radical, DL have started to have a wider impact and are increasingly cited by outlets like Huffpost France, Le Monde and Le Figaro.

Jerome Rodrigues, an injured participant in the French 'yellow vests' movement, reacts at a demonstration against police violence in Paris, France, 2 February 2019. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

Another contingent marched on the 2nd of February – protesting against the use of grenades and flashballs by the CRS and on the 13th of February in support of Sebastien Maillet, a gilet jaune who lost his hand due to an exploding police grenade. The Facebook group that has created the event is simply named ‘Ban the grenade and flashball’. A video posted by the page and its associated Youtube channel has gone viral on both platforms despite now being labelled with a content warning. It shows victim after victim of violence bearing their wounds and telling the story of how they came to be injured by the CRS.

One of the early victims in the video who talks about her experience is 28-year-old Axelle, who was working as a waitress at the time. Her jaw was fractured in two places and she was left with second degree burns when she was shot by a flashball. She suffered considerable physical pain and was unable to open her mouth for a while. She says she has suffered some psychological trauma too, it really rattled her, and she was convinced at the time that her cheek had burst open.

Despite the trauma, Axelle has become a vocal critic of police violence. She appeared on the gilets jaunes internet program Vecu and another video from the ‘Ban the grenade and flashball’ Facebook page. It is an affecting piece of agitprop calling on people to march in solidarity with victims of police violence. Her monologue follows footage of a tactical grenade hitting a protestor. She stares down the barrel of the camera and passionately argues ’the entire world needs to know… that the French state has ripped off a hand or ripped out an eye from 24 protesters.’ The video currently has 177,000 views and 13,000 shares.

Protesters pose at the end of a demonstration by the French 'yellow vests' movement against police violence, in front of Statue de la Republique in Paris, France, 2 February 2019. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

Axelle is one of 10 networked activists in the video who are all trying to prevent their experience from being repeated. Individuals like these are fronting the campaign, but it extends far beyond just the victims. The movement to disarm the riot police is gaining traction at an impressive pace. It has just received a major adrenaline shot after Jerome Rodrigues, a prominent Yellow Vest was shot in the eye by a policeman. This has sparked outrage from the wider movement not just because the charismatic leader figure with a platform was shot, but because Rodrigues’ lawyer claims the police were not wearing cameras and did not issue any warnings when Rodrigues was shot. This has confirmed many gilets jaunes fears about issues of transparency and accountability within the ranks of the armed cops that they regularly clash with.

Rodrigues isn’t the only thing energizing this new subset of the gilets jaunes movement. The campaign to disarm the police isn’t just a reaction to violence used against gilets jaunes but, has become a front against the wider problem of police violence more generally. Groups like Truth for Adama and Truth and Justice for Gaye – seeking justice for the murders of black citizens Adama Traoré and Gaye Camara by police in 2016 and 2018 respectively – are also getting behind this new movement.

These groups have organized marches before and are lending their expertise to the movement to disarm the riot cops by promoting marches and events. Like some of the more severely injured gilets jaunes, their focus is on justice as well as the end of disarming the CRS. Adding to this, lawyers from the newly established collective Robes Noires et Gilets Jaunes (black robes and yellow vests) are giving legal aid to injured gilets jaunes and those who have been arrested arbitrarily and are pressing the government and the police on the legality of the use of force and police powers. Their mission statement is to maintain the right to free assembly and the right to protest and to protect against and prevent abuses of power.

If the use of the security state was meant to repress these protests, it appears to have had the opposite of the intended effect.

Oliver Haynes is a freelance writer and Exeter University politics and French student currently living and working in France. You can find him on Twitter.

 

 

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