FRANCE

Six videos of police violence during France's labour reform protests

Screengrabs of one of the videos below, published on Youtube by "DOC du réel".
Screengrabs of one of the videos below, published on Youtube by "DOC du réel".

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A nationwide protest movement against a controversial French labour law has pitted police against demonstrators for the past few months. Since the protests began in March, numerous videos shared on social media have captured police officers hitting protesters with batons, punching them or lobbing grenades in their direction, among other acts of violence. Several journalists covering the movement have been injured in the crossfire. We examine six of the most striking videos showing police violence.

In France, many citizens, trade unions and a significant part of the political left have showed strong opposition to the law proposed by Labour Minister Myriam El Khomri, which would make fundamental changes to the labour code. They take issue with several controversial articles, especially those that would change France’s famous 35-hour work week, regulate overtime and make it easier for companies to make workers redundant.

It’s in this context that the Nuit Debout (or "Up All Night") movement was born. Its adherents have vowed to occupy public spaces to force debate about political, social and economic issues. Started in the Place de République in Paris, the movement has now spread across France.

For the past three months, about 1,500 protests against this labour law have been held across the country, according to the General Inspector of the National Police [Editor’s note: Nicknamed the “police of the police”, this organisation is known as the Inspection générale de la police nationale (IGPN) in French]. Many of these gatherings have been marred by  violence.

Hooligans regularly infiltrate the ranks of the more peaceful activists and lash out against law enforcement officers or wreck property. On May 18, for example, a group of protesters, gathered to protest police violence against activists, set fire to a police car.

However, numerous videos show violence carried out by security forces on protesters, even if the National Police Alliance [Editor’s note: France’s largest police union, known in French as the Alliance Police Nationale] claims that these videos do not show "police brutality but the necessary use of force and coercion by officers in their line of duty" (this was quoted from a longer interview that you can find at the end of this article).

The IGPN has opened 48 investigations into accusations of police violence carried out during the labour law protests.

Paris, March 24:

A policeman punches a high schooler in the face

On March 24, high school and college students came out to protest against the proposed labour law in several cities across France. In Paris, the clashes broke out near Henri Bergson High School, in Paris’ 19th arrondissement. A police officer punched a 15-year-old in the face. The teenager collapsed onto the ground immediately.

A video showing the officer punching the teen was posted online and quickly went viral. The IGPN opened an investigation into the incident. Meanwhile, the Paris police prefecture stated that the high schoolers had started the violence when they began throwing “projectiles” at police cars.

The police officer who hit the high schooler was suspended until his trial, which is set for November 10. He’ll be judged for “deliberate violence by a person in a position of public authority”.

Paris, April 28:

Handcuffed activists are assaulted by law enforcement

Since earlier this spring, Nuit Debout activists have been gathering each night in the Place de la République in Paris. At 1:37 am on April 28, filmmakers Matthieu Bareyre and sound engineer Thibaut Dufait were filming the forced evacuation of the activists from the public square by security forces. They managed to film officers hitting people who were already handcuffed and assaulting some activists who were already lying on the ground.

Paris, May 1:

A photographer gets an eye injury from a sting grenade

On that particular day, security forces fired several sting grenades at a group of people. Sting grenades, which propel rubber bullets when they explode, can only be used in very specific cases when the police are facing imminent danger.

Photographer Fab Enero was standing in the crowd targeted by the sting grenade. In the video, he is the one wearing a red jacket and a blue cap. Enero sustained an eye injury from the explosion, according to BuzzFeed. In a Facebook post, Enero said that the security forces gave “no warning” before setting off the grenade.

After this video was shared on social media, the NGO Reporters Without Borders called on the French Prime Minister to “publicly condemn targeted attacks on journalists”. The NGO, which works on press freedom worldwide, said they had noticed a "fresh outbreak of violent and illegal practices carried out by security forces” in the past few weeks.

Paris, May 10:

A policeman hits a man in the face with a baton

Several hundred people gathered in front of the National Assembly in Paris to protest against the use of article 49.3 in the constitution, which would allow the new labour law to be adopted without a parliamentary vote. Opponents said using this method to adopt the law would be “an insult to the people”. It was during this riot that an officer in the CRS [French riot police] knocked down a protester who refused to retreat, then hit him on the head with a baton.

Police frequently hit activists with batons, according to a chart recording “police violence reported since March 2016” compiled by BuzzFeed.

Paris, May 17:

Law enforcement fires teargas at a filmmaker

Filmmaker Joël Labat had the camera rolling when a CRS officer fired a tear gas grenade at him, hitting him in the thigh (at 1'20"). At the end of the video, Labat added a photo of the large bruise on his right thigh.

 A few days later, Labat filed a complaint against the officer who targeted him, according to website Reporterre.

Paris, May 26:

A photographer is seriously wounded by a string grenade

During yet another protest in the eastern part of the French capital, a police officer threw a sting grenade into a crowd. This video shows the subsequent explosion. A 28-year-old independent photographer was hit in the head by shrapnel from the grenade. Doctors later reported that he had a depressed temporal fracture with broken portions of bone displaced inward and that they had to put him into an induced coma.

A few days later, Mediapart, a French online and investigative journal, published videos showing that the police officers were facing no imminent danger when they launched the grenade that seriously injured the photographer. Two investigations have been opened into the affair.

"This violence occurs when there is no social dialogue"

Laurent Mucchielli is a sociologist and a director of research at CNRS, the National Centre for Scientific Research. He works on the politics of security.

We haven't seen an increase in police violence during this social movement as compared to others in the past. The difference is that, now, these incidents are more likely to be filmed. 

The first reason that we are seeing so much violence is political. The government doesn’t want to negotiate with opponents to the labour law, so some of the protesters are radicalising. This leads them to more violent behavior, which provokes a similarly violent reaction from the police.

That said, the police really are on the offensive. They set up in close proximity to the protestors. This is different to their behavior during widespread farmers’ protests last year, when they stationed themselves quite far away from the protestors. Also, because the police want to avoid outbreaks of violence, they sometimes arrest people at the very beginning of protests. This, however, can often have the opposite effect and trigger a violent reaction. In these cases, the security officers are usually acting on orders from those higher up.

We’ve seen more direct violence as well, such as officers aiming their Flash-Balls at protesters’ heads [Editor’s Note: Flash-Ball is a non-lethal, hand-held weapon used mainly by law enforcement officers during riots. It was developed by a French hunting firearms manufacturer.]

Another problem is that when victims go to local police stations to file complaints, they are sometimes treated badly and discouraged from actually lodging the complaint. When the IGPN takes over a case, the accused aren’t usually prosecuted. Instead, they only face administrative sanctions.

"This isn’t about police violence. It’s about police acting in their line of duty”

Olivier Hourcau is the national regional secretary for the police union, the Alliance Police Nationale.

We don’t consider that any acts of police violence were committed. The police use force and coercion when it is necessary to arrest and put away people who are upsetting public order– usually the kind of people wearing backpacks, hoods and gas masks. We also use force and coercion to disperse gatherings.

The law provides for this. Higher ups decide how police are going to manage each gathering after evaluating the situation. For example, an officer can arrest people at the beginning of a protest if he judges it necessary.

Tasers, Flash-Balls and sting grenades are only used by police officers trained to use them. Police are always acting within their role as law enforcement officers, which is why we’ve only seen sanctions in about 1 or 2% of cases in the past three months.

"We are talking less about the 400 police officers and gendarmes who have been injured since March"

There’s a lot of talk about these videos, but it is important to put them in context because you don’t always see what happened before or after the event. About 400 police officers and gendarmes have been injured since March, but we are talking much less about that.

Sometimes, there are collateral victims, who are injured because they happened to be in a tense location. But those people can file a complaint. And if their complaint is reasonable, the police are required to record it.