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How the 'yellow vests' made France have a national conversation about police violence

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Ingri Bergo - [email protected]
How the 'yellow vests' made France have a national conversation about police violence
Photo: AFP

France is in the middle of a difficult and emotional conversation on the topic of police violence. Here's why.


On Saturday February 8th, a small group of still-determined ‘yellow vest’ protesters took to the streets for the 65th consecutive weekend in several French cities. 

In Bordeaux, around 5pm, a 19-year-old girl with a smartphone captured a scene of just 48 seconds, which, after she uploaded it online, was shared thousands of times in a couple of hours. 

In the video a police officer can be seen walking briskly towards a line of people waiting outside what later was identified as the train station in Bordeaux.

The police officer turns towards one of the men in the line, a young man with a black hoodie who clutches something green in his hand. The officer is then seen to grab the man, kick him and throw him to the ground.


The video was shocking enough to create a small storm of online outrage, but it's just the latest in a series of incidents centred around alleged police violence. 

“[Police violence] is not new in France. What’s new is how much it’s being documented,” said David Dufresne, a French author and filmmaker who is one of France’s foremost experts on the subject. 

The 'yellow vest' protests have been ongoing for almost 18 months, although since the summer of 2019 turnout has dwindled sharply.

Through that time there have been incidents of violence from both sides (1,200 police officers have been injured) but the 'yellow vests' themselves have fed social media users with an unprecedented amount of photos and videos documenting and denouncing what they describe as excessive use of police force.

These amateur videos are the reason France is now having a national conversation about police violence, according to Dufresne.

For the first time, snippets of law enforcement in action were made available for everyone to watch, pause, zoom in and review.

As a result, people were asking questions. Why were the police in Bordeaux arresting the man? If the arrest were legitimate (there were reports that he had been throwing iron bars at police earlier in the day) was the kicking necessary? Was what followed proportionate, given that the crowd included several non-protesters, even children?

'Allo, Place Beauvau..'

Dufresne has become famous in France for collecting and publishing every single documented incident of police violence since the beginning of the ‘yellow vest’ protests in November 2018. His book Derniere sommation (‘Last warning’) took its name from what French police say just before firing a weapon.

During a ‘yellow vest protest’, Dufresne would tweet a photo or video of an incident together with a brief account of who had been injured and when and where it happened, alongside the message “Allo, Place Beauvau, c’est pour un signalement” (‘Hello, Place Beauvau, this is a warning’). Place Beauvau is slang for the French Interior Ministry, named after the square where it is housed.


Among the footage that Dufresne collected were nauseating videos of high profile incidents such as tear gas grenades blowing off hands, or rubber bullets piercing eyes.

But it was the sheer amount of the footage that has had a real impact.

Since the protests started, 3,100 people have been injured, according to the French Interior Ministry (Dufresne has the total number at between 2,000 and 3,000). Of these, 1,900 were civilians and 1,200 police officers. Ninety-four of the civilian injuries were characterised as ‘serious’. 

Five people had their hands ripped off, some after trying to throw tear gas grenades back towards police, and twenty-five people lost an eye or were blinded during the protests, like the man the Twitter video below.


“France is going through a similar moment as the US did,” Dufresne said. 

In the US, “I can’t breathe” became a nationwide rallying cry in 2014 after a video showing a police officer manhandling 43-year-old Eric Garner went viral. In the video, Garner, a black man and a father of six, can be seen being pushed to the ground, held in a chokehold, audibly gasping for air, repeating “I can’t breathe” as many as eleven times before he died. 

The video became a turning point in the national discourse and also led to dozens of Americans, having seen how much difference a camera could make, taking to the streets, armed with their phones, to document police violence all over the country. 

With the ‘yellow vests’, something similar has happened in France.

READ ALSO ANALYSIS: French police are not all thugs - they are being placed in an impossible situation

Jérôme Rodrigues bacame a symbol after he was hit in the eye during a 'yellow vest' protest. Photo: AFP

And it seems to have an impact.

First, international organisations reacted to issue. In an embarrassing episode for the French government, the UN’s High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet last summer asked the country to “thoroughly investigate all incidents that involved excessive use of force.”

Now, the pressure is being turned up at home.

In a rare move, French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner recently publicly criticised French police after a video of a police officer deliberately sticking his foot out to trip over a female protester in Toulouse went viral.

“It’s the police’s honour that is at stake. You don't stick your foot out to trip over ethics,” Castaner said.

The Interior Ministry has also banned the use of the tear gas grenade GLI-F4, a brand that has previously been reported as being dangerously flawed.

Although the national conversation about police violence was sparked under his reign, it has existed in France since long before French President Emmanuel Macron entered politics.

Dufresne was 18 the first time he witnessed police violence up close. It was an evening in Paris in 1986. Malik Oussekine, a 22-year-old student participating in a university reform strike, was arrested and beaten by three police officers. He later died in police custody.

The ‘Oussekine affair’ led to a backlash against the police strategies developed during the May 1968 protests, many of which turned violent.

French TV channel  France 2 recently published a report claiming that Paris Police Prefect Didier Lallement modelled a police unit after the 1968 troops.

Lallement was appointed Paris police chief in March 2019 after police were on the end of stinging criticism for 'losing control' of several yellow vest protests including incidents in which the Champs-Elysées was looted and burned and the Arc de Triomphe vandalised.

To ensure that this would never repeat itself, Lallement created La BRAV, a special police unit that moves around the capital on motorcycles and jumps in first sign of a situation escalating. 

French police say this kind of proactive action is needed in the current social climate. 

So-called Black bloc protesters have been participating in the 'yellow vest' protests, attacking capitalist symbols and often police. Photo: AFP

“The problem is that we get hung up in the moment of arrest,” said Benoit Barret, Deputy Secretary of Police Alliance, one of the country’s main police unions.

He added that frequently videos circulating on social media do not show the full context.

Referring to the video of the arrest in Bordeaux on Saturday, Barret said the man in question had been identified earlier by police as a member of an “ultra-violent protest group.” 

“Moments before the video was shot, this délinquant (offender) was spotted throwing projectiles. He then chose to flee, cowardly hiding among civilians,” Barret said.

In yet another video published on Twitter, a young man was filmed holding something resembling an iron pipe. He was wearing jeans and a black hoodie - and green beanie hat and looks similar to the man in the arrest video.


But even if the two videos showed the same person, would that justify the arrest as filmed? 

To Barret, the answer is an unequivocal yes.

“The officers simply did their job. I understand that it could seem shocking to the other people present, but these are ultra-violent people who need to be stopped,” he said.

“It is very easy to sit behind a desk and criticise the police who are out risking their own skin every day,” Barret said.

“Our officers are being threatened, attacked and hurt, risking their lives every day to protect others.

“Our police are not violent. They are trained to never use force unless there is a good reason,” Barret said. 

“Sometimes we make mistakes. But the police is the best controlled profession in the country. If someone breaks the rules, it will be investigated” he said.

The 18 months of weekly protest have posed a major challenge to France's already overstretched police forces, demanding huge amounts of resources for each protest. Several police unions have described the service as at breaking point, with very high levels of stress, sickness and suicide among officers

The institution responsible for investigating potential police is IGPN (Inspection générale de la police nationale). 

Since the beginning of the ‘yellow vests’, more than 200 cases have been reported to the IGPN - which is linked to the Interior Ministry. About 150 of them have already been closed. Only two police officers have so far been penalised for inappropriate behaviour during the protests, although more cases are pending. One of them for slapping a protester, the other for having thrown a rock towards protesters. Both scenes were filmed and shared on social media.

In comparison, over 3,000 protesters have been tried. Four hundred of these received prison sentences. 

Dufresne said this showed that the problem was "systemic."

“The banlieues have experienced this kind of police violence for decades. Now it is out in the open, it can’t be denied anymore,” Dufresne said.

Ladj Ly's Oscar nominated film Les Misérables depicts tensions between police and the community in the Parisian suburb Monfermeil. Photo: AFP

Less often talked about in France is that the fact ‘yellow vests’ protests represented the first time that white, middle class French people - many of whom had neither protested before nor interacted closely with the police - experienced first hand what the people in some of Paris' tougher neighbourhoods had been saying for years. 

In 2017, Théo Luhaka, 22, was severely beaten during a routine police stop in the Seine-Saint-Denis area on the outskirts of Paris. One of the officers was later charged with rape, his baton having inflicted lifelong injuries on Théo.

Although the Théo story shocked France at large, the social outrage that followed was largely kept inside the banlieues. 

This is different.

“This is the first time ever that we’re having this debate in France,” Dufresne said.

“The question is what comes out of it.”



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