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

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.

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

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.

Member comments

  1. Bank windows are more important than damage to human beings?

    The tourists are wrong to be more scared of notorious French police then the unarmed Gilets Jaunes?

    The “apolitical” protests of last November?

    Plenty of stuff just wrong here… please ignore.

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OPINION: France’s ‘slow train’ revolution may just be the future for travel

Famous for its high-speed TGV trains, France is now seeing the launch of a new rail revolution - slow trains. John Lichfield looks at the ambitious plan to reconnect some of France's forgotten areas through a rail co-operative and a new philosophy of rail travel.

OPINION: France's 'slow train' revolution may just be the future for travel
The slow trains would better connect rural France. Photo: Eric Cabanis/AFP

France, the home of the Very Fast Train, is about to rediscover the Slow Train.

From the end of this year, a new railway company, actually a cooperative, will offer affordable, long-distance travel between provincial towns and cities. The new trains – Trains à Grande Lenteur (TGL)?– will wander for hours along unused, or under-used, secondary lines.

The first service will be from Bordeaux to Lyon, zig-zagging across the broad waist of France through Libourne, Périgueux, Limoges, Guéret, Montluçon and Roanne. Journey time: seven hours and 30 minutes.

Other itineraries will eventually include: Caen to Toulouse, via Limoges in nine hours and 43 minutes and Le Croisic, in Brittany, to Basel in Switzerland, with 25 intermediate stops  in 11 hours and 13 minutes.

To a railway lover like me such meandering journeys through La France Profonde sound marvellous. Can they possibly be a commercial proposition?

Some of the services, like Bordeaux-Lyon, were abandoned by the state railway company, the SNCF, several years ago. Others will be unbroken train journeys avoiding Paris which have never existed before – not even at the height of French railway boom at the end of the 19th century.

The venture has been made possible by the EU-inspired scrapping of SNCF’s monopoly on French rail passenger services. The Italian rail company Trenitalia is already competing on the high-speed TGV line between Lyon and Paris.

The low-speed trains also grow from an initiative by President Emmanuel Macron and his government to rescue some of France’s under-used, 19th century, local railways – a reversal of the policy adopted in Britain under Dr Richard Beeching from 1963.

The cross-country, slow train idea was formally approved by the rail regulator before Christmas. It has been developed by French public interest company called Railcoop (pronounced Rye-cope), which has already started its own freight service in south west France.

Ticket prices are still being calculated but they are forecast to be similar to the cost of “ride-sharing” on apps like BlaBla Car.

A little research shows that a Caen-Toulouse ticket might therefore be circa €30 for an almost ten-hour journey. SNCF currently demands between €50 and €90 for a seven-and-a-half-hour trip, including crossing Paris by Metro between Gares Saint Lazare and Montparnasse.

Maybe Railcoop is onto something after all.

The company/cooperative has over 11,000 members or “share-holders”, ranging from local authorities, businesses, pressure groups, railwaymen and women to future passengers. The minimum contribution for an individual is  €100.

The plan is to reconnect towns ignored, or poorly served, by the Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) high speed train revolution in France of the last 40 years. Parts of the Bordeaux-Lyon route are already covered by local passenger trains; other parts are now freight only.

In the longer term, Railcoop foresees long-distance night trains; local trains on abandoned routes; and more freight trains.  It promises “new technological” solutions, such as “clean” hydrogen-powered trains.

MAP France’s planned new night trains

For the time being it plans to lease and rebuild eight three carriage, diesel trains which have been made redundant in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region.

There will be no space for a buffet or restaurant car. Restaurants and shops along the route will be invited to prepare local specialities which will be sold during station stops and eaten on board.

What a wonderful idea: French provincial meals on wheels; traiteurs on trains.

Olivia Wolanin of Railcoop told me: “We want to be part of the transition to a greener future, which is inevitably going to mean more train travel.

“We also want to offer journeys at a reasonable price to people who live in or want to visit parts of France where train services have all but vanished. We see ourselves as a service for people who have no cars – but also for people who DO have cars.”

Full disclosure. I am a fan of railways. I spent much of my childhood at Crewe station in Cheshire closely observing trains.

Three years ago I wrote a column for The Local on the dilemma facing SNCF and the French government on the 9,000 kilometres of underused and under-maintained local railway lines in France. Something like half had been reduced to low speeds because the track was so unreliable. Several dozen lines had been “suspended” but not yet officially axed.

The government commissioned senior civil servant, and rail-lover, François Philizot to study the problem. After many delays, he reported that much of the French rail network was in a state of “collapse”. Far from turning out to be a French Beeching, he recommended that a few lines might have to close but most could and should be saved – either by national government or by regional governments.

Since then the Emmanuel Macron-Jean Castex government has promised a big new chunk of spending on “small lines” as part of its €100 billion three year Covid-recovery plan. Even more spending is needed but, for the first time since the TGV revolution began in 1981, big sums are to be spent on old lines in France as well as new ones.

The Railcoop cross-country network, to be completed by 2024-5, will run (at an average of 90 kph) partly on those tracks. Can it succeed where a similar German scheme  failed?

François Philizot suggested in a recent interview with Le Monde that a revival of slow trains might work – so long as we accept that a greener future will also be a less frenetic future.

“When you’re not shooting across the country like an arrow at 300 kph, you can see much more and you can think for much longer,” Philizot said.

Amen to that.