French police under fire as ‘yellow vests’ casualty toll mounts
Twenty years ago Jean-Marc Michaud was a paratrooper who proudly marched with the army down the Champs-Elysees avenue in Paris on France’s national holiday.
But these days, the 41-year-old former French soldier, who lost an eye to a rubber bullet during a “yellow vest” protest in Bordeaux last weekend, is “no longer proud of France at all,” he told AFP.
Michaud is one of dozens of protesters who have been seriously injured in clashes with police, whose sometimes heavy-handed tactics, particularly their use of 40-mm (1.6-inch) rubber projectiles and stun grenades, have drawn mounting criticism.
The “yellow vest” protests that erupted last year over fuel taxes have broadened into weekly demonstrations across France against President Emmanuel Macron, sometimes spiralling into violent clashes with police.
The “Disarm” collective, a local group that campaigns against police violence, has documented 98 cases of serious injuries since the first nationwide protests on November 17, including 15 cases of people losing an eye.
The leftwing Liberation daily counted 77 people with serious head injuries, 71 caused by rubber bullets and others by stun grenades.
In one incident that caused widespread outrage, a volunteer fireman and father of three suffered a stroke on January 10 after being hit in the head in Bordeaux, apparently by a rubber bullet.
Video footage of the incident, which was widely shared on social media, showed an officer firing at a group of retreating protesters, his rifle aimed at head level.
The footage then showed Olivier Beziade lying face down on the ground a few metres away, his back to the police. A rubber bullet was found at his feet.
“He was less than 10 metres away and they shot him in the head, there is no way that can be a mistake,” his wife Cindy told AFP.
Last week, a 15-year-old was hit in the face in the eastern city of Strasbourg, also apparently by a rubber bullet. A video showed the shocked teen pressing a cloth to his bloodied cheek.
– ‘Weapon of war’–
France’s official police oversight body has received over 200 reports of police violence, though it has not given a breakdown of the cases.
The mounting list of injured has led to heightened scrutiny of police crowd-control techniques, long seen by some experts as aggravating tensions between the state and citizens in a country with a culture of violent protests.
On Thursday, France’s human rights ombudsman Jacques Toubon called for a suspension on the use of the so-called defence ball launchers (LBDs) that shoot the rubber rounds — a call echoed by Olivier Fillieule, a researcher on security at Lausanne University in Switzerland.
“France is about the only country, apart from two German states and Spain’s Guardia Civil, that uses LBDs in policing, with the terrible consequences we see which are unacceptable in a democracy,” Fillieule told AFP, calling it “a weapon of war if used at point-blank range”.
The police and government have defended the use of rubber bullets.
“We’re being attacked with glass bottles, cinder blocks, acid and bolts. An LBD is the weapon that scares people. If they took them away from us, no officer will want to work during the protests,” a police source told AFP.
– Anti-police vitriol –
Several incidents of officers being attacked by protesters have led to a hardening of the battle lines.
In one of most serious incidents, three officers on motorcycles had to make a hasty getaway after being pelted with electric scooters, paving stones and other objects on the Champs-Elysees on December 22.
One officer was knocked over with his bike, prompting another officer to briefly draw and point his gun at their attackers before retreating.
Under their rules of engagement, officers are allowed use rubber bullets “only in cases of absolute necessity”, where they are “strictly proportional” to the situation, are fired at least 10 metres from their target and aimed below the neck.
But the large number of head injuries among protesters suggests the rules are not always followed, fuelling the vitriol of the yellow vests who are frequently heard shouting “CRS collabos” (riot police are collaborators).
Interior Minister Christophe Castaner this week brushed aside criticism of the force.
“I have never seen a policeman or gendarme attacking a protester,” he declared, despite a police captain being caught on camera on January 4 chasing and beating protesters in the southern city of Toulon.
But national police chief Eric Morvan, in a note to the troops this week, reminded them that the use of rubber bullets had to be proportional and could “only target the torso and lower limbs”.