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Top French court upholds police use of controversial rubber-ball launchers

Patrick Hertzog, AFP | French riot police holding an 'LBD' gun, a weapon banned in many European countries.

France’s top legal advisory body, the Council of State, has refused to ban police from using controversial rubber-ball launchers that have been blamed for a spate of serious injuries suffered by Yellow Vest protesters.

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Friday's highly anticipated ruling by the Conseil d'État follows an urgent request by the CGT trade union and the French Human Rights League to suspend use of the hand-held launchers, which fire rubber projectiles roughly the size of golf balls.

The country’s rights ombudsman, Jacques Toubon, has already spoken out against the so-called Defence Ball Launchers (LBDs), amid a surge in the number of serious injuries – including lost eyes, maimed hands and broken limbs – sustained by protesters in recent months.

Victims’ lawyers have also urged the government to ban so-called “dispersal” grenades, which contain a dose of TNT explosive and spray smaller rubber pellets.

Officials say some 1,900 protestors and 1,200 police have been injured in less than three months of protests, though some estimate that the number of protestors hurt may actually be double that. The victims have included several journalists, some hit with rubber bullets fired by police and others beaten up by protesters.

Protesters hold a banner with pictures of people purportedly injured by police during a Yellow Vest protest in Paris on January 26, 2019.
Protesters hold a banner with pictures of people purportedly injured by police during a Yellow Vest protest in Paris on January 26, 2019. Alain Jocard, AFP

The dramatic casualty list has led to heightened scrutiny of policing methods, long criticised by experts as aggravating tensions between security forces and citizens in a country with a long history of violent protests.

Disputed figures

The "Yellow Vest" protests that erupted last year over fuel taxes have spiralled into weekly demonstrations across France against President Emmanuel Macron, sometimes spiralling into violent clashes with police.

The "Disarm" collective, an activist group that campaigns against police violence, has documented more than a hundred cases of serious injuries since the first nationwide protests on November 17, including 17 cases of people losing an eye. A separate tally by the leftwing daily Libération counted 144 people with serious injuries, 92 of which were reportedly caused by LBDs.

The interior ministry says it has launched 101 internal investigations, finding only four cases of protesters suffering serious eye injuries. No officers have been reprimanded so far, though in a first concession the government announced last week that officers equipped with LBDs would be carrying body cameras too.

>> Read more: French riot police will now wear body cameras

The national police chief, Eric Morvan, also sent a note to the troops, reminding them that the use of rubber bullets had to be proportional and could "only target the torso and lower limbs".

That didn’t prevent another high-profile incident on Saturday, when prominent Yellow Vest activist Jérôme Rodrigues became the latest protester to be hit in the eye while filming a rally in Paris. His lawyer has said he will be disabled for life.

Deterrent

LBDs, which first appeared in the 1990s, were initially intended only for special law-enforcement units, but their use has been considerably broadened since the huge riots that swept through many of the poorer suburbs of Paris in 2005.

Described as “sub-lethal” weapons, they are subject to strict rules of engagement. Officers are allowed to use the 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.

However, the high number of head injuries sustained, and both amateur and professional videos posted on the Internet, suggest these instructions are not always followed.

Jérôme Rodrigues, one of the leaders of the Yellow Vest movement, says his eye injury was caused by a rubber ball fired by police.
Jérôme Rodrigues, one of the leaders of the Yellow Vest movement, says his eye injury was caused by a rubber ball fired by police. Christophe Archambaut, AFP

Still, police unions say the controversial weapon is a necessary deterrent, noting that officers are routinely attacked with glass bottles, metal bars and cinder blocks.

“The LBD is a good compromise between physical contact, which is particularly dangerous for both protesters and police, and more powerful weapons,” David Le Bars, head of the SCPN police union, wrote in an op-ed in the Journal du Dimanche on Sunday, adding that a decision to ban the rubber-bullet launchers would in fact “increase the risk of disproportionate force being used”.

(Sub-)lethal?

Lawyers and some health officials have disputed the “sub-lethal” label attached to LBDs, including the claim their bullets are “non-perforating”, arguing that the weapons can cause fatal injuries when used at point-blank range.

“We have to stop describing these weapons as non-lethal when there is simply no evidence to support this,” said lawyer Arié Alimi, a member of the “Disarm” collective, pointing to the case of a firefighter in Bordeaux who would have died of an LBD injury to the head earlier in January if medics hadn’t intervened.

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 firefighter 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," Beziade’s wife told AFP.

In addition to causing “irreversible physical damage”, such weapons also “infringe on fundamental liberties, such as the right to protest and be protected", according to the French Human Rights League.

A European ‘aberration’

Outrage over the security crackdown has made little impression on the government in a country that is notoriously resistant to change when it comes to police methods – and where the interior minister is informally referred to as the “premier flic de France” (France’s top cop).

"I have never seen a policeman or gendarme attacking a protester," Christophe Castaner, the interior minister, declared last week, saying he was “stunned” by accusations levelled at officers, who face an extraordinary challenge in containing a highly volatile movement.

Castaner has angrily rejected claims that police made disproportionate use of force, without waiting for results of investigations by the police disciplinary body, the IGPN. Instead, his ministry has ordered a further 1,280 LBDs over the next four years, putting French law enforcement increasingly at odds with practices elsewhere in Europe.

Greece, Poland and Spain (with the exception of Catalonia) are the only other European states to allow the use of such weapons, which have been completely banned in Austria, Ireland, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and the UK.

“It’s an aberration, France shouldn’t be part of a club that essentially includes former dictatorships,” Sébastien Roché of the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) told Libération. “The trouble is that we still have a highly centralised police force, where citizens have no place. That is in contrast with northern countries where the police engage with the local population and aim to be accepted by the public.”

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