OPINION: France's 'yellow vest' conflict is heading into calamitous new territory

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OPINION: France's 'yellow vest' conflict is heading into calamitous new territory
The injury to one of the yellow vest leaders could see protests lurch towards calamity and tragedy.

The latest violence at the "yellow vest" demo in Paris where one of the leaders of the Gilets Jaunes was gravely wounded must act as a warning to both protesters, police and politicians, writes John Lichfield. Otherwise the conflict is heading into tragic and calamitous new territory.


The Gilets Jaunes street protests are already the longest running and most violent in recent French history.

The events in Paris on Saturday, when a yellow vest leader, Jérôme Rodrigues, was gravely wounded in his right eye, are a stark warning to both sides.

The longer the confrontations go on, the more likely it becomes that there will be a grave incident or a series of incidents, which take the conflict into calamitous and tragic new territory.

The warning looks likely to be ignored - by both sides.

Gilets Jaunes leaders (who claim not be leaders but act more and more like leaders) are exploiting the incident to try to galvanize their flagging and splintering movement.

Eric Drouet, the 33 years old truck driver who is now the de facto leading yellow vest, called on Saturday night for a retaliatory “rising without precedent by all useful and necessary means”. He then denied, hypocritically, that this was a call for violent rebellion.

The government, although clearly worried by the incident, is refusing to bow to calls for the withdrawal of rubber-bullets and stun grenades used by almost no other security forces in the European Union.

The injury to Mr Rodrigues (see photo below), who was filming the violence at Place de la Bastille but not behaving violently, was initially thought to have been caused by a splinter from a stun grenade or “grenade de désencerclement”. Although Mr Rodrigues claims he was also hit by flashball - a controversial rubber bullet fired by police.

Up to 17 other people have lost eyes since the protests began on 17 November, mostly through being hit by police rubber (actually hard foam) bullets which are not supposed to be aimed at the face or head. 

According to the government, 1,700 protesters and 1,000 policemen or gendarmes have been injured in the 11 weeks of conflict.

The government insists that “defensive bullets” and stun grenades, containing a dose of TNT, are necessary to defend police from violent attacks. If the security forces were disarmed, ministers say, there would be hand to hand combat which would cause even more serious injuries.

Laurent Nunez, the deputy minister for the interior, said yesterday: “I have also to think of the 45 police officers and gendarmes who were injured on Saturday…by missiles and by acid.”

Who is most responsible for the violence of the last 11 weeks?

Despite lurid claims on Gilets Jaunes sites, it is utterly wrong to say that the government or police have set out to suppress protest. All peaceful demonstrations, even those which were undeclared and illegal, have been allowed to proceed without police intervention.

The violence has invariably been started by a fringe of violent, provincial Gilets Jaunes and their allies from the urban militia of the ultra-right and ultra-left. The destruction and arson in Paris on December and the weekly vandalism and car-burning in Bordeaux, Toulouse, Rouen, Caen and other cities were not provoked by police action.

Saturday was a case in point. A march by around 4,000 yellow vests reached Bastille without incident.  Then a group of about 100 ultra-left activists began to pelt police with missiles and erect a burning barrier.

The police intervened violently to clear them from the square. Mr Rodrigues was struck in the eye.

The Gilets Jaunes movement claims to be peaceful. Many of its members abhor violence. Others condone it. Others clearly seek it.

Quite apart from the violence during the Saturday demonstrations, there have been scores of attacks on the homes and offices of pro-Macron politicians, on public buildings and on motorway toll areas.

On Saturday, rival groups of far left and far right youths, all wearing Gilets Jaunes, fought each other on the Boulevard Diderot in eastern Paris (see tweet below).


Two moderate Gilets Jaunes leaders, Jacline Mouraud and Ingrid Vavasseur, who are trying to set up political wings of the movement, have been inundated with threats of violence from other yellow vests in the last few days.

By my observation, police and gendarmes deployed each weekend for 11 weeks in succession have mostly behaved with restraint and discipline. There have, however, been disturbing incidents of police beatings of captive demonstrators; of unnecessarily violent arrests; and misuse of rubber bullets and stun grenades.

In the film which Mr Rodrigues took just before he was injured on Saturday, an officer can be seen pointing a weapon at him though he was not involved in the violence.

Trained riot police officers blamed much of the police brutality on mobile units of plain-clothes “anti-gang” police who have been drafted in to help cope with the weekend protests. They are “cowboys”, they say, who are not properly trained in how to use their “non-lethal” weapons.

(French Police in Marseille arrest a yellow vest protesters covered in blood. AFP)

 Interior Minister Christophe Castaner, has refused to criticise police publicly. He has even insisted, against all evidence, that there have been no incidents of police brutality.

An internal police investigation has been started into Saturday’s events at Bastille. Over 100 other similar investigations are ongoing.

There is an obvious danger that the injury to Mr Rodrigues – one of the more peaceful and sensible Gilet Jaunes leaders – will be used to justify violent attacks on the police next Saturday.

There is a danger that the security forces, exhausted by 11 weeks of deployment, will abandon what remains of their restraint.

The Gilets Jaunes “leadership”, despite the rabble-rousing comments of Eric Drouet, is now appealing for calm. So is Mr Rodrigues. If they are truly opposed to violence, they would abandon the sequence of Saturday protests. That is not going to happen.

It is also time for the government to break the spiral of violence by announcing that it will progressively abandon the use of rubber bullets and stun grenades. That is not going to happen either.    

John Lichfield is a journalist based in France. He is the former France correspondent and foreign editor for The Independent newspaper. You can follow him on Twitter @john_lichfield





Comments (2)

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Anonymous 2019/02/08 10:49
Guy loses an eye and calling attention to it is "exploiting the incident"...Litchfield is so right-wing. I'd like to see if Litchfield would call it "exploiting the incident" if he lost his eye?
Anonymous 2019/01/28 15:59
It's the chance one takes when you taunt the police and are among missile throwing louts.

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