Gilets Jaunes and the security state

Olly Haynes reports on the violent crackdown on protesters on the streets of France

February 13, 2019 · 9 min read
Photo by Patrice Calatayu (Flickr).

Paris every Saturday becomes a battleground. Riot cops cordon off large sections of the centre of the city with temporary fences and armoured vehicles resembling tanks. On the 15th January, I followed a few hundred people on a march which ended in several large groups of Gilets Jaunes bottlenecked into the streets feeding into a cross roads near the Elyseé palace. People were chanting peacefully, angrily certainly, but peacefully. They were making demands for democracy and redistribution of wealth and calling for the RIC (citizen’s referendum initiative) which aims to add a mechanism for direct democracy to the French constitution. You don’t have to think it’s a good idea to see that to demand it in public space is a legitimate form of democratic engagement. These demands were aimed at bringing power closer to the people and making society more equal. The state’s response was swift and indicative of the wider values of the capitalist class. As more people tried to join together to form bigger groups in the crossroads the first tear gas grenade pin was pulled.

The crowd dispersed immediately and then each time it tried to reform, more grenades were let off. On one of the streets there was the bizarre scene in which tear gas hung in the air outside luxury central Paris hotels while members of the elite and the upper-middle classes looked out from behind the glass, a perfect visual metaphor for the inequality that has sparked these protests.

Tear gas has been used so frequently that anyone protesting in Paris now will almost certainly be carrying some kind of gas mask. Another frequently deployed weapon of the state against the protestors has been the water cannon which a Le Parisien article revealed has in the past used water mixed with the ground up bones of animals and dried blood. But, the most vicious expression of the state violence has to be the flashball. The flashball is a non-lethal weapon manufactured by the French arms company Verney-Carron. It looks like a handgun with two barrels and fires a rubber bullet with the stopping power of a .38 calibre pistol. They are devastating at short range and have been used brutally by the security services against protestors who get too close to them.

I talked to Wilfried, a steelworker from Imphy, a small town in Burgundy. He has been married for nine years and he and his wife of nine years have recently had a child. He is an ordinary working person, not a dogmatic member of a black-bloc. He attended a protest in Paris where plain clothes polices officers ended up caught amidst the crowd. One of them ran into his back and two either fell or were pushed (he isn’t sure) to the ground by his feet. As he tried to escape the chaos, a policeman shot him in the face with a flashball at the range of about a metre. He was left with a large split on his forehead. He continues to protest despite experiencing psychological trauma, but he is a lot more careful now.

28-year-old Axelle is a waitress while she looks for another job. She was shot in the jaw by a flashball on the 8th of December. The fractures prevented her from eating or speaking properly and the images of the second degree burn she received as a result are shocking. There is a dark black/blue bruise spreading up her jaw and it looks like someone has taken a red-hot poker to the side of her face it has forced her to take a month of sick leave and she was significantly traumatised by the event – she says she was utterly convinced that her cheek had burst open.

Gilets Jaunes aren’t even the only ones being injured. Manon is a nurse who attended the climate march in Paris.  She stayed around after to help administer first aid and all was fine while the protest was occurring. It was as she and two of her friends walked away, with no crowd around that a flashball from behind hit her in the foot and fractured her metatarsal. She has filed a complaint but that won’t address the fact that this brutal treatment on behalf of the state is forcing her to stay off work until early February. At the time she wasn’t even wearing a yellow jacket.

There are so many of these cases. Jacques Pezet works for CheckNews, the fact checking division of La Liberation newspaper, and he has counted 94 seriously injured of which 69 have been shot by flashballs. He told me that when he began looking into this it became quite quickly apparent that these are real. As the movement has progressed there has been lots of talk of the Gilets Jaunes repeatedly sharing fake news. Certainly conspiracy theories, misleading, quite often racist memes and anti-vaxxer propaganda have been particularly worrying. But when I asked Jacques how many of the injured he thinks are real, he said that of the pictures being compiled into mosaics with titles like ‘The wall of shame’ he would say 8 or 9 out of 10 are real, the others too blurry or without enough information attached to them to verify.

A campaign against police brutality Desarmons-Les was started in 2012 and they told Jacques that this was unprecedented and that they will be dealing with these cases for years and at this moment at least 60 enquiries have been opened into police violence were it is thought to be illegal The Gilets Jaunes protests are the product of a significant portion of France saying they have had enough. Talking to many of them, it is clear that France is hurting, and this doesn’t just come across from people shot by flashballs. People are angry at the lack of control in their lives and are feeling the burn of a crisis in the cost of living. The Gilets Jaunes do have some serious issues they need to grapple with, but that is no excuse for maiming protestors. The reaction of the state to these protests has shown that Macron is desperate to safeguard the interests of capital and does not care at all about the concerns of his own people.

Much of the media coverage of the Gilets Jaunes protests has focused on burned cars, smashed out the advertising boards and bricks through windows. But little attention has been given to the much more concerning violence enacted by the CRS riot squad (Republican Security Corps) on behalf of the state.

Michel is a young Gilet Jaune training to go into the army. He made a 300km journey to be in Paris for the act V protests on December the 15th as he had the week before. His military ambitions suggest he is not squeamish about the use of force by the state, but he thinks that the repression the Gilets Jaunes have been met with is “far too much”. He and his friend Bryan were scathing about the fact that it had been justified under anti-terror legislation brought in when Macron ended the state of emergency after two years of its implementation in 2017. A controversial bill essentially extended the exceptional powers of the state of emergency into ordinary law. In practise this means that decisions made by the police require little evidence and minimal judicial involvement.

The state has been very keen to try and repress these protests because the aims of the movement are anathema to Macron’s agenda of privatisations and deregulation. Macron is committed to shrinking the state. He has attempted to privatise the state run rail company the SNCF and teh national lottery. The Gilets Jaunes however favour much more state involvement, one of their most frequent demands has been for the nationalisation of the motorways, and a routinely circulated graphic of demands included a section on the complete halting of all privatisations. The state thought that if they could crush the protests quickly through use of force, the damage to tourism revenues would be minimal as central Paris would not have to be cordoned off each week and turned into a battleground. What we have seen here with the repression attempts is the scared reaction of capital when its power is challenged from below.

The security establishment is one of the areas of the French state best safeguarded from austerity. In the wake of the wave of terror attacks in 2015/16 the various departments of the French police and gendarmerie have received boosts in funding and extra powers that notionally help deal with terrorism. While the coercive arm of the state thrives, it was announced in 2017 that 120,000 public sector jobs would be axed, the first day of sick leave would go unpaid and swingeing cuts to housing, pensions and other social welfare payments are planned for 2019 in a doomed bid to eliminate the deficit. This isn’t anathema to the logic of austerity – it’s perfectly in keeping with a programme which ensures that wealth is funnelled directly into the pockets of the wealthy – and preventing those hit hardest by this system from having their say.


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