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OPINION: French police are not just thugs, they are being placed in an impossible situation

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OPINION: French police are not just thugs, they are being placed in an impossible situation
Tear gas was used during Saturday's protest in Paris. Photo: AFP

Teargas and tourism don't mix, but there is more to the violent clashes in Paris than simply blaming the French police, writes John Lichfield.


Last weekend police tear-gassed tourists on the Champs Elysées and climate change protesters on the Paris Left Bank.

They didn’t set out to do so. The evidence suggests that they didn’t take much care to prevent it happening either.

The police merit some criticism.

READ ALSO More than 100 arrested in Paris as 'yellow vest' protests turn violent

The CRS riot police have been heavily criticised for their use of tear gas at the climate change march. Photo: AFP

But it should also be pointed out that they had been placed, deliberately and cynically, in a difficult situation.

A lot of nonsense is being spouted in left wing and far right publications and on Gilets Jaunes social media about the events in Paris on September 21st. 

First, we are told that the police, or Macron, “suppressed” a peaceful climate change march. No, they didn’t.

A march of about 15,000 people, including many children, was delayed for more than an hour by battles between police and several hundred Black Bloc hard-left-anarchist guerrillas. It eventually went ahead. 

Many peaceful demonstrators were caught up in clouds of tear gas from police grenades. Tear gas is, by its nature, uncontrollable once released.

All the same, the CRS riot police and Gendarmes Mobiles should have been more cautious in their use of gas in the presence of thousands of peaceful and youthful demonstrators.

Up to 1,000 anti-capitalist urban guerrillas and militant Gilets Jaunes had invaded the peaceful march. They smashed bank and shop windows. They smashed bus-shelters. They hurled missiles at police. They built and set fire to barricades, using amongst other things, electric scooters and plastic street barriers. 

The protesters set fire to plastic bins and street furniture. Photo: AFP

Burning plastic street furniture and electric scooters in the cause of climate change demands an extreme degree of blind ideological arrogance and stupidity. I have seen little mention of that in the left-wing, hard-right and Gilets Jaunes media hand-wringing about “police violence”.

Secondly, we are told that, earlier on the same day, police deliberately tear-gassed tourists on the Champs Elysées.

Yes, some tourists were caught up in clashes between riot police and about 200 Gilets Jaunes (who were not wearing their namesake yellow vests for the most part).

The 'yellow vests' were defying a six-month-old ban on demonstrations on the Champs Elysées, imposed after a fringe of Gilets Jaunes and scores of Black Bloc protesters smashed shop windows and burned news kiosks on March 16th. By leaving aside their yellow vests, they were hoping to play hide and seek among the throngs of tourists on the avenue.

The riot police used tear gas to repel them. A disturbing video shown by BFMTV also suggests that some police officers indiscriminately gassed tourists.

A middle-aged couple speaking English - they were probably German or Dutch - said: “We were walking to our car when the police came and pushed us. We told them we were leaving but they gassed us directly in the face.”

I was not on the Champs Elysées on Saturday but I have been in the midst of many confrontations since the Gilets Jaunes protests began 10 months ago. By my observation, the French riot police -both CRS (riot police) and the Gendarmes Mobiles - are mostly disciplined and professional, more so than they were 20 or 30 years ago.

There are exceptions. There are also roaming bands of plain-clothes, “anti-gang” police who are drafted in to help their colleagues. They are frequently aggressive and use their tear-gas sprays and other weapons indiscriminately. 

As well as the riot police, some plain clothed offers from the anti gang units are often seen on demonstrations. Photo: AFP

Some of the police weapons are dangerous and should be withdrawn. There have been too many serious injuries. But in 99 per cent of cases that I have observed, the violence has been initiated by the protesters. 

The Champs Elysées incidents fell at an awkward time. September-October is usually a peak period for tourism in Paris. 

A recent survey by The Economist magazine found that the French capital had tumbled six places since last year in the league-table of pleasantest cities to visit in the world. (It should be noted, however, that Paris only came 19th in the previous list).

The Economist blamed the violent Gilets Jaunes protests in December and again in March for the city’s fall in the rankings. Another British weekly suggests, absurdly, that foreign tourists are scared of the French police, not the Gilets Jaunes. Context, balance and perspective are unfashionable these days. 

Here goes all the same.

The Gilets Jaunes protests have shrunk to a fraction of their strength last winter. They have also changed in character.  

The anti-political and apolitical rural protests of last November (282,000 on the streets) have gradually been replaced by something more urban and overtly hard left (maybe 10,000 throughout France last Sunday, leaving aside the climate and pension protests).

There is now a weekly ritual. The Gilets Jaunes and Black Bloc media give blood-curdling warnings of “revolution” the following Saturday. Any scattered violence that does occur is blamed on the police.

The violent Black Bloc now dominate 'yellow vest' protests as numbers have dwindled. Photo: AFP

Support for the Gilets Jaunes in their original rural and outer suburban heartlands has all but collapsed. Public opinion is now against them, according to the recent polls. Protests will nevertheless continue in their reduced form, trying to piggy-back onto the trades union action against pension reform (which has been less than menacing so far). 

Government and police need to re-think their tactics. They no longer face a credible threat to bring down Macron - or the state.  They should scale down the security presence, withdraw the most dangerous police weapons and use tear-gas more sparingly. 

They should be careful not to reward the crude logic - provocation/police over-reaction/anti-state propaganda - deployed by the Black Blocs and the militant fringe of remaining Gilets Jaunes.


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Anonymous 2019/09/27 10:25
Bank windows are more important than damage to human beings? <br /><br />The tourists are wrong to be more scared of notorious French police then the unarmed Gilets Jaunes? <br /><br />The "apolitical" protests of last November? <br /><br />Plenty of stuff just wrong here... please ignore.

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