Pension protests raise tensions across France
French authorities see the police as protectors who are ensuring that citizens can peacefully protest President Emmanuel Macron’s contentious retirement age increase. But to human rights advocates and demonstrators who were clubbed or tear-gassed, officers have overstepped their mission.
In the months since mass protests against the proposed pension changes began roiling France, some law enforcement officers have been accused of resorting to gratuitous violence. A man in Paris lost a testicle to an officer’s club, and a police grenade took the thumb of a woman in Rouen. A railway worker hit by grenade fragments lost an eye.
“Where is your humanity?”, a woman shouted at officers who knocked an apparently homeless man to the ground in Paris, kicked him and used vulgar language while ordering him to get up and go. In a video posted on Twitter, another passerby helped the man to his feet at the scene last month near the Place de la Bastille.
The violence adds to the anger in the streets and complicates efforts to invite dialogue between the government and labour unions, who are planning an 11th round of mass demonstrations on Thursday.
The protests, which began in January, gained momentum after Macron’s decision last month to push a bill to raise the retirement age through the lower house of parliament without a vote. The common French reference to law enforcement officers as “forces of order” has been turned on its head. Now the question is whether police represent force or order.
Jarred by the bad publicity, authorities have shifted to damage control by offering accolades for security forces.
“There is no police violence,” Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said Wednesday on RTL radio while condemning “individual acts” of officers who use disproportionate force. “Can’t we occasionally thank the forces of order?”, he pleaded.
The concerns about police brutality have reverberated beyond France. Amnesty International, the International Federation of Human Rights and the Council of Europe – the continent’s main human rights body – were among the organisations that cited excessive police violence during what has been a largely peaceful protest movement.
French police are sent into demonstrations with weapons that are prohibited in most European countries, including stun grenades and rubber bullets, according to Sebastian Roche, an expert on security forces with France’s National Center for Scientific Research.
Demonstrations and potentially mutilating weapons are a combustible combination, Roche said, because “the temptation will be very big to use these armaments” especially when police come under a cascade of objects hurled at them, including Molotov cocktails.
The strategy is “at once very violent” and in some aspects illegal, Roche said, citing cases in which demonstrators were detained en masse and then released without charges the next morning. Lawyers’ and magistrates’ associations have said such practices are an abuse of the law.
Jonas Cardoso, a 20-year-old student, was among more than 100 people detained during a March 23 protest in Paris.
“I spent hours in a cell for four people with nine other protesters. I slept on the floor,” he told The Associated Press. Cardoso denied any wrongdoing and was released without charges.
Worse, Cardoso said, is that violence may beget more violence.
“If the government doesn’t listen to us, the violence will rise. Our worst fear is that someone will die while protesting,” the young man said.
Videos of police brutality posted on social media largely fail to capture the presence of black-clad ultra-leftists or anarchists who have infiltrated the protest marches, destroyed property and attacked police officers.
“There are troublemakers, often extreme left, who want to take down the state and kill police and ultimately take over the institutions,” Darmanin said after a protest in March that turned especially violent.
The ranks of these provocateurs have grown, bolstered by opportunists and some leftist students. The intruders work in small, highly mobile groups, appearing and disappearing in formations known as black blocs.
Black blocs are not a new phenomenon, but they represent a danger to police. In one dramatic video posted on social networks, an officer is seen crashing to the ground after being hit with a paving stone. Colleagues dragged him away.
Violence by and against police is not limited to Paris, or to protests over Macron’s retirement plan.
Gendarmes and militants opposed to an artificial water basin recently clashed in rural France. Four people – two gendarmes and two protesters – were taken to hospital in serious condition.
According to French policing rules, the use of force “must be absolutely necessary, strictly proportionate and graduated”.
“Of course, the police response is proportionate,” Paris Police Chief Laurent Nunez insisted in a television interview. Police intervene only when black blocs move into action, he said.
“Without police, demonstrations wouldn’t take place,” he said, insisting on their role as guardians of peace.
However, some protesters have found themselves trapped by police tactics such as encirclement, in which officers surround marchers so police can chase down troublemakers. But protesters stuck inside the police bubble can’t escape tear gas fumes.
Roche said the latest tensions show that France has “an accumulation of (police) crises that no other European country has.”
He cited the 2018-2019 Yellow Vest protests for social and economic justice where a brutal police response left two people dead, and multiple protesters lost eyes. Next came a debacle during last year’s Champions League Cup final when British soccer fans were gassed by police at the Stade de France.
Amnesty International’s France chief, Jean-Claude Samouiller, said last week at a news conference that France should improve its policing strategy and cited “a doctrine of de-escalation and dialogue” that is observed in Germany, Belgium and Sweden.
Compared with other European countries, Samouiller said, the two protest deaths in France in recent years put the nation at the bottom of the class, in the category of “bad student”.