French police response to ‘Yellow Vest’ violence in spotlight after latest unrest

Philippe Wojazer, Reuters | People take pictures of a newspaper kiosk burned during the latest "Yellow vest" protest on the Champs Elysées in Paris, France, on March 18, 2019.

The government’s failure to keep Paris protests over the weekend from spiralling out of control has put a harsh spotlight on its law enforcement strategy, which makes avoiding injuries a priority even after hours of rampant destruction and looting.


Business owners on the iconic Champs-Elysees avenue were fuming Monday as French President Emmanuel Macron met with Interior Minister Christophe Castaner and Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet to weigh their response to an 18th consecutive Saturday of “yellow vest” demonstrations.

Some 5,000 police were deployed in the capital on Saturday, far outnumbering the several hundred black-clad rioters who caused havoc for more than seven hours.

Yet TV footage often showed officers standing in formation while the protesters burned and pillaged dozens of stores, images that drew widespread criticism, including within police ranks.

“You have to take responsibility and engage, with the possibility that people will get hurt,” said Frederic Lagache of the Alliance police union.

For decades French authorities have usually preferred the opposite, putting down mass protests with tear gas and rubber bullets but avoiding physical clashes against large groups.

“They would rather see a building damaged, with insurance companies footing the bill, than risk direct contact between police and demonstrators that might cause serious injuries or death,” said Olivier Cahn at France’s Cesdip law enforcement research institute.

Macron has vowed “strong” measures to quell the violence, and has already pledged an anti-hooligan law that would let authorities pre-emptively detain protesters with a known history of violence.

>> Riots on Champs-Élysées: Why violence has become ‘legitimate’ for some Yellow Vests

But despite growing public exasperation with the weekly violence, few expect the government to risk a shift in tactics that could see police accused of using excessive force against a movement that still enjoys considerable support.

“The idea seems to be, if the violence persists, you have to be more repressive,” Cahn said.

“That doesn’t do anything except make the protesters even more determined,” he said.

‘Less reactive’

Junior Interior Minister Laurent Nunez admitted on RTL radio on Monday that police “were less aggressive, less reactive than usual” over the weekend, promising a review of the instructions given to officers and their deployment.

But critics say that after more than three months of weekly protests, the government needs more than pledges of determined action, and should drastically rethink its approach for stamping out the rioting.

“There are techniques and strategies for separating violent demonstrators from the others,” Cahn said.

“Germany has strategies for de-escalating the tensions and separating protesters that are quite effective,” he said.

However French authorities have already been accused of a heavy-handed response to the yellow vest movement, which began in November over fuel taxes before ballooning into a sustained revolt against Macron.

Dozens of protesters have already been injured in the clashes, including some who claim they have lost an eye after being struck with rubber bullets.

Rights groups have tried to have the controversial “defensive ball launchers” (LBD) banned, noting that France is one of only a handful of Western countries to use them.

But the government says they allow police to avoid potentially more risky contact with protesters hurling paving stones and wielding hammers and other makeshift weapons.

Yet pressure is increasing to find a way of quelling the violence, especially when authorities are well aware that a hard core of protesters are determined to cause havoc again next Saturday.

“Every Sunday large cities across France wake up to the same old story: smouldering barricades and a strident declaration from Christophe Castaner,” leftwing daily Liberation wrote Monday.


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