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Yellow Vest protests: Macron's 'risky' plan to put army on streets

Alain Jocard, AFP | Operation Sentinel soldiers in front of the Eiffel Tower, Paris.

French President Emmanuel Macron has announced that soldiers will be deployed Saturday across the country to help maintain security during Yellow Vest protests. But the move has been met with fierce criticism.

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Authorities have vowed a 'zero tolerance' approach to this weekend's protests. Paris police have banned the protesters from a large area in the west of the city, including the famed Champs-Elysees avenue, scene of last week’s destruction by hundreds of protestors, as well as the presidential palace and National Assembly.

Similar bans have been announced in the centres of Toulouse, Bordeaux, Dijon, Rennes and the southern city of Nice where Chinese President Xi Jinping is set to meet Macron this weekend.

In a controverisal move, soldiers will be redeployed from their anti-terror "Operation Sentinelle" duties for this weekend’s protests to ensure the security of government buildings and other key sites. This will therefore allow the police to focus on public order.

However, the soldiers will be armed with automatic weapons, raising concerns about how they will respond if the protests turn violent.

Opposition united on both sides

The decision has united opposition MPs on both sides.

“Maintaining order in France should be the police’s and the National Gendarmerie’s business. It is not the army’s job,” Guillaume Larrivé, MP for the centre-right Les Républicains party told Radio Classique.

Larrivé criticised the government’s “improvised” response to the Yellow Vest crisis, and expressed concern the move would “end up weakening civil peace”.

On Wednesday, Bruno Retailleau, leader of Les Républicains Senators, called on Macron to “reverse this disastrous decision”.

The move was met with similar criticism on the Left. “In what European democracy is the army called in to police a social movement?” Raphaël Glucksmann, who will lead the Socialist Party at the EU elections, asked on Twitter.

“This shows the extent of Macron’s failure to reconcile the French and to ease the tensions in our society,” Glucksmann added.

“It’s unheard of,” Benoît Hamon, Socialist Party candidate in the last presidential election, said Thursday, adding that “the government was releasing an arsenal of security and martial measures to mask the Interior Minister Christophe Castaner’s incompetence”.

Last military law enforcement operation was in 1948

However, the French government denied that it is mobilising Operation Sentinelle troops to maintain order, saying the soldiers will be deployed to guard symbolic sites.

Government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux said the troops’ deployment will allow police forces to “concentrate on crowd control, along with maintaining law and order”.

Putting the army on the streets is nothing new. Since Operation Sentinelle was launched in January 2015, some 7,000 soldiers have been deployed throughout the country to secure buildings, and during one-off events.

“The last time the State requisitioned the army for policing operations was in 1947-1948,” Élie Tenenbaum, an IFRI researcher and defence specialist, told FRANCE 24.

In the spring of 1947, the French Communist Party, excluded from the government, called a series of strikes. But the movement took an “insurrectional” turn, according to the then Interior Minister, who deployed the army to help the police.

Although the current situation is different, "it is not uninteresting to wonder what could happen if rioters attacked public buildings, as Sentinelle troops are not equipped to respond to this type of threat," Tenenbaum continued.

They are armed with lethal weapons. They have a telescopic baton and a Famas or HK 416, the army's new assault rifle, which must be loaded. "They don’t have a riot shield to protect themselves or an intermediate defence weapon," said Tenebaum. “It is therefore important to provide extremely clear guidelines as to what actions they can take."

The troops are also at risk of being attacked. "In 2016, during demonstrations against the El Khomri law, Operation Sentinel troops protecting Les Invalides were attacked," said Tenenbaum.

A political and financial decision

This decision, although risky, has been motivated by two main factors, according to Tenenbaum. The first is political. Deploying the army shows “the government’s desire to respond powerfully, as was already the case after the [Paris] attacks. Involving the army is bound to make a lasting impression.”

The second reason is due to financial constraints. The police have been working flat out since the Yellow Vests protests began on November 17. However, police officers and gendarmes subject to hourly rates must get days off in lieu or be paid overtime. This is very expensive for the State. On the other hand, a soldier must carry out his/her mission without time restrictions. Whether he/she has six or twelve hours left on a mission, it costs the same,” said Tenenbaum.

The practical consequences of using the army depends on the scope of their orders, and how much guidance they are given about how to react to situations of escalating pressure. It also depends on the Yellow Vests themselves.

This article was adapted from the original in French.

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