Analysis of a rumour: Did undercover police try to discredit the 'Yellow Vests'?

Screen grabs of videos published on December 1 on Facebook.
Screen grabs of videos published on December 1 on Facebook.

Four videos were shared online on December 1 that purport to show undercover police officers infiltrating the "Yellow Vest" demonstrations and stirring up trouble. According to some protesters and social media users, police officers masqueraded as protesters and took part in acts of vandalism during demonstrations in Paris with the goal of discrediting the movement. However, while the videos show police officers or intelligence officers that are dressed as civilians – which is legal and common during protests in France – nothing in the footage proves that they took part in any acts of vandalism.

On December 1, protesters belonging to the "Yellow Vest" movement held demonstrations throughout the country for the third Saturday in a row. The Yellow Vests started out protesting a proposed diesel tax hike, but the movement has grown to encompass anger over the decreasing spending power for France’s middle and lower classes. According to the interior ministry, 5,500 people marched on Champs-Elysées Avenue in Paris. Some people threw stones at police officers and vandalised parked cars, storefronts and even the Arc de Triomphe.

Here are the four videos being shared on social networks purporting to be proof that police officers infiltrated the protest and participated in violence:

1. Men with police armbands at the Champs-Elysées

The first video was published on Facebook on the evening of December 1 and has been viewed more than 6.8 million times. It shows a group of police officers dressed in black clothing walking down the Champs-Elysées. Some are wearing ski masks. Nearly all of them are wearing red armbands that identify them as police officers.

The person filming the video says, “Look closely, those are the real casseurs.” In French, a “casseur” is someone who engages in violence or vandalises property, specifically during a protest.

2. Police officers standing near a police van

This second video shows several men in civilian clothing standing near a police van at 83 Avenue de la Grande Armée, in Paris’s 16th arrondissement (district). They are wearing hoods and seem to be taking supplies from inside the vehicle.

The women narrating the scene says, “Here are the undercover cops [...] and then they break things and then [people say] it’s the Yellow Vests […] They’ve infiltrated the protest, and then it’s them who break things.”

This video has been viewed more than 4.4 million times.

3. Protesters yelling at men they believe to be police officers

The third video was published in the late morning on the same day. It was filmed at the corner of Brey street and Montenotte street, not far from the Arc de Triomphe. It shows protesters yelling at a group of eight men, whom they insult and accuse of being casseurs disguised as police officers. One of the accused men is wearing a yellow vest while others are dressed in dark clothing.

This video has been viewed more than 3.7 million times.

4. A policeman wearing a yellow vest tries to take a protester to a police van

In the fourth video, a TV viewer films his TV screen as it shows a news bulletin from C-News, a French television station, on the evening of December 1. You can see a man wearing a yellow vest trying to take a protester towards nearby police vans. However, he appears to give up and walks back to a group of his colleagues before taking off his yellow vest.

The person filming the TV screen comments, “And they say there are no policemen disguised as Yellow Vests… Look closely at this man.”

The video has been viewed more than 2.8 million times.

None of these videos prove that undercover police were involved in vandalism

At least three of these videos show police or intelligence officers wearing civilian clothing, apparently to go undercover among the protesters. However, none of the videos show any of these officers committing any acts of vandalism, nor acts of violence, against their police colleagues.

The fact that officers are wearing civilian clothing is “absolutely legal and common”, says criminal law professor Olivier Cahn.

Police officers as well as intelligence officers can legally go undercover at protests and make arrests. In fact, anyone is allowed to apprehend someone who has committed a criminal offense punishable by prison time, in accordance with article 73 of the penal code. Any violent actions committed during protests fall under this category, with the exception of graffiti – unless it is painted on a historical monument.

France’s national police posted on Twitter in an attempt to counter the social media accusations.

“(#December1) Beware of #FakeNews. Videos claim to show police officers in civilian clothing going undercover to break things. This is false. Like with all protests, police officers in civilian clothing discreetly make arrests and collect information on the march’s movements.”

The France 24 Observers spoke with Louis Witter, a French photojournalist who has covered numerous protests in France over the years. He said:

For me, this claim (that police officers acted like casseurs) is complete fantasy. But it’s routine to see police officers in civilian clothing assigned to follow the action and arrest protesters who have committed violent acts.

Cases of police 'casseurs' in the past and abroad

While there is no proof (as of publication) that any undercover police officers acted like casseurs during the Yellow Vest protests, there have been such cases in France in the past.

In Paris in 1979, a casseur was apprehended while breaking a storefront by the security service of the CGT union, which had been tasked with ensuring order at a steelworker’s protest. He turned out to be an undercover police officer named Gérard Le Xuan, who was at the time wearing his service weapon and had his police ID card on him.

In 1986, during a student protest against university reforms, a “man in a yellow scarf” was seen throwing projectiles at police officers. Several media outlets including TF1 television and ACTUEL magazine reported that the man was actually a police officer himself. “His identity was never established in a court of law,” explains Cahn, who said that this case has nevertheless “fomented suspicion”.

As Slate journalists noted in an article on this subject, the most emblematic image of a casseur policeman was in Canada. Back in 2007, officers in Quebec were caught pretending to be casseurs at the Montebello summit, where North American leaders had gathered. “This amateur video quickly spread around the Internet and the world,” noted Slate.