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Yellow Vests: French riot police will now wear body cameras

Francois Nascimbeni, AFP | A French police officer holds a "flash-ball" gun, used to launch rubber bullets in riot situation, stands next to the courthouse of Reims, on February 15, 2016.

Following accusations of police violence at Yellow Vest protests, French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner announced that riot police in Paris will be equipped with body cameras to record their use of rubber bullets and other weapons.

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The debate about the use of rubber bullets by French police has recently escalated, as more and more citizens have been injured during the weekly Yellow Vest protests. This has served to fuel the anger of the Yellow Vests and put the government on the defensive.

Attempting to diffuse the situation, Castaner told a committee at the National Assembly on Tuesday that police officers using these weapons would be equipped with body cameras from Saturday January 26, during what will be Act 11 of the Yellow Vest campaign.

This decision “responds to the requirement for transparency and the need to lead by example. We owe this to the French people”, the minister then tweeted.

These cameras will have to be activated by the police “at the time of the use of the LBDs (rubber bullets)”, so that in the event of a “debate, dispute or litigation, these images can be produced and used, including in the legal context”, the minister told the committee.

Castaner’s only reservation, he said, was in cases where the police were pushed on the ground and attacked. “I would not object to them using a defence weapon to guarantee their own safety.”

The number of injuries since the start of the Yellow Vest campaign on November 17, 2018 is dramatic. Official figures claim that at least 1,000 protestors and 1,000 police have been injured, though some estimate that the number of protestors hurt may actually be double that.

Blindness, broken jaws and broken limbs

The most serious injuries range from people being blinded, losing teeth, and/or sustaining broken jaws, broken ribs and broken limbs.

On January 17, the French public rights defender, Jacques Toubon, called on the government to control the use of weapons police can use in riot situations.

The weapons include rubber bullets, tear gas canisters and stun grenades.

In 2014, there was a previous proposal to equip police with cameras. This was aimed at ordinary street police in high-crime areas in Paris’s suburbs. Its main purpose was to counter accusations of police racial profiling and of using excessive force during arrests.

Castaner's new proposal is specifically directed at riot police and the plainclothes squad that acts as a support team to help identify known rioters and arrest them. Not all police are armed with rubber bullets and they are expressly for use during riot situations.

The minister said on Friday that he was “stunned” by the accusations of police violence from Yellow Vest protestors. But he also stated that, out of 81 investigations referred to the General Inspectorate of the National Police (IGPN), only four concerned people seriously injured by rubber bullets, and in the eye, since the beginning of the movement last November.

“Of these 81 LBD projectile forensic investigations, there are four vision losses. No injury is acceptable but all must be investigated to determine the reasons for this and the conditions under which it happened,” said Castaner, who last week said he had “never seen a police officer attack a demonstrator”.

Dispute over number of victims

This first official assessment is much lower than the claim that 17 people have lost an eye. This has been put forward by the collective Désarmons-Les (Disarm Them) and the independent journalist David Dufresne, with details, photos and videos to support it.

Faced with the controversy, the head of the national police force, Eric Morvan, reminded his troops a few days ago that the use of rubber bullets must be proportionate and that “the shooter must only target the torso and the upper or lower limbs”.

Rubber bullets and the flash-balls used to fire them have been the subject of heated debate in France for several years.

On Thursday, rights defender Jacques Toubon once again called for the suspension of this weapon to “prevent rather than cure”.

According to training manuals, the police should only use the flash-ball “in cases of absolute necessity” and “in a strictly proportionate manner”. They should not shoot above the shoulders.

However, videos have been flooding the Internet and social networks since the beginning of the Yellow Vest crisis showing that these instructions are not always followed.

A significant number of journalists have also been injured covering the weekly Yellow Vests protests. The journalists have been attacked by both sides, hit with rubber bullets by police and beaten up by protestors.

Reporters without Borders Secretary-General Christophe Deloire called on authorities to take action. "This is anti-democratic blackmail from people who consider they can beat up journalists if they disagree with the way events are covered," he said on France Info radio.

Castaner responded on Twitter that anyone attacking reporters will be brought to justice. "In our democracy, the press must be free... attacking journalists is attacking the right to inform," he said.

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