Tear gas is frequently used by French police to disperse crowds when protests turn violent.
Photos from protests in France often show police officers carrying long, black weapons, with thick, egg-sized holes that fire off the canisters that fog the streets thick with thick, grey smoke.
The tear gas itself is not dangerous, although deeply unpleasant if you breathe it in, but there have been many cases of the grenades themselves causing injuries when they explode, both to people hit by fragments and people who try to throw or kick them back towards police.
This weekend, the investigative French newspaper Mediapart published a letter from the manufacturer of the grenades used in France, warning about the safety risks of its own product.
Manufacturer Alsetex is reported to have written to the French Interior Ministry in January 2018 to warn about the deficiencies of the GLI-F4 grenade.
Referring to an incident dating back to 2014, when an employee was killed in the process of manufacturing the grenade, Alsetex wrote that at this stage it was “impossible to resume the production process” of the grenade and that a “costly” work security study was needed.
The letter also stated that the grenade had already caused “several serious accidental injuries” and its use would “probably” soon be prohibited.
A protester kicks away a tear gas grenade in Nantes. Photo: AFP
How dangerous are the grenades?
French riot police have a variety of weapons in their armoury for use if protests get violent.
There has already been much controversy over the LBD rubber bullets used in violent protest situations, which have lead to several people losing an eye, but the tear gas canisters are generally less feared by those attending the protests.
However several ‘yellow vest’ protesters have been severely injured by the GLI-F4 grenade. An 80-year-old woman died in Marseille last December after a police tear gas grenade hit her as she closed her shutters during a demonstration.
At least five people have had their hands blown off after picking one up from the ground.
This is one of the main problems revealed in Alsetex's letter to the French Interior Ministry, the grenade's “ageing deficiency” had “not been resolved.”
This means that while the grenade might explode on contact with the ground as it is supposed to, it could also remain intact – until someone touches it or picks it up.
People in Paris marched against police violence in June, carrying portraits of people who were injured during the 'yellow vest' protests. Photo: AFP
France alone in Europe
France authorised the use of the GLI-F4 grenade in 2011. The grenade was created to replace the OF1 grenade, which was banned after it killed a 21-year-old man during a protest in 2014.
France is the only country in Europe that allows explosive items such as the grenade during protests.
Human Rights Watch released a report in December 2018 critisising the French police for their “disproportionate” use of force against protesters, stressing that both journalists and students were among the victims.
What about future policing?
Mediapart’s revelations come as France prepares for another big protest day on December 17th, when hundreds of thousands of people are expected to take to the streets in another nation-wide protest against the government’s planned pension reform.
While last week’s union-led protest turned out to be relatively calm compared to the ‘yellow vest’ protests the week before, between 7,000 and 8,000 police officers had been deployed in case things turned violent.
Should ‘black bloc’ rioters infiltrate the protest on Tuesday like they did during the one-year-anniversary of the ‘yellow vest’ movement, the police might fire tear gas canisters to disperse protesters. In that case, there is no reason as to why the GLI-F4 grenade would not be among the tear gas canisters fired off.
According to the police watchdog Direction générale de la police nationale (DGPN), 583 GLI-F4 grenades have been used since January 2018.