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OPINION

Eye on France: Call to ban police use of non-lethal munitions

The debris in central Paris after one yellow vest protest in November.
The debris in central Paris after one yellow vest protest in November. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

The French public rights defender, Jacques Toubon, has called on the government to take steps to control use of dangerous weapons, including rubber bullets, stun grenades and gas canisters, by police on crowd control duty.

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“Crowd control” is polite for “riot duty” and in recent weeks, that has meant clashes with protesters wearing, for the most part, yellow vests.

Several different types of supposedly non-lethal weapons are involved. We’re talking about rubber bullets, tear gas canisters, flash balls and stun grenades.

And the list of injuries provoked since the start of the gilets jaunes movement is long and horrific.

There have been at least 1,000 injuries on each side, police and protesters, with some estimates pushing the number of demonstrators requiring some level of medical treatment up to 1,700 or even 2,000.

Horrific list of serious injuries

People have lost eyes, teeth, lower jaws, had ribs and other bones broken. No one has bothered to count the number of stitches required to seal up superficial wounds. And a Paris hospital doctor points out that only the most seriously injured are making it to the emergency services.

What can be established without debate is that there have been 207 complaints of police violence since the start of the Yellow Vest protests, and that 71 of those are scheduled to be heard before the courts. There is also one internal police investigation in progress, related to the same violence.

The police have been getting hurt too, as is made clear by the dramatic cover of Le Point which shows the former professional boxer Christophe Dettinger smashing a right fist into the head of a police officer, before joining in the generalised assault on the unfortunate victim, now semi-conscious on the ground.

So, fists, boots, steel bars and paving stones on one side, Jacques Toubon’s non-lethal crowd control weapons on the other. People are getting badly hurt.

Contradiction between aims and methods

On one side are the profoundly human demands of the gilets jaunes,with the tragically dehumanised methods used by some of them; on the other, the forces of order, sometimes individually guilty of excess, sometimes clearly misusing weapons which can, in unfortunate circumstances, lead to disfigurement and death.

Normally, none of the weapons in question on the police side can be used aggressively. These are strictly for self-defence or in situations of extreme violence when there is no alternative. Police are trained to aim for the limbs or lower body, never the head. But, when self-defence is the question, the police rules drop all mention of suitable target zones. If your life is in danger, you do what you can to protect yourself.

Unfortunately, whether by accident or determination, the line limiting potentially lethal use of these weapons seems to have been ignored several times in the past months. And there is also the impact of stress on those officers using these arms, frequently in fear for their own lives.

As Jacques Toubon has pointed out, the fact that the various weapons are considered non-lethal means that the police have fewer hesitations before firing on an advancing crowd.

Europe rejects earlier call for a ban

Last December, 200 political and other personalities called for a ban on the use of rubber bullets against large crowds of protesters. The European Human Rights Court the same month rejected an attempt to have baton rounds declared illegal.

Despite Toubon’s efforts to have rubber bullets at least temporarily banned from French streets, until the true level of danger they represent can be evaluated, the state continues to order more launchers. On 23 December, the interior ministry ordered a total of 1,730 such weapons.

State and media together in "denial"

David Dufresne, a journalist and writer who has made the counting of injured Yellow Vest protesters his speciality, says that the French media and political class are standing together to cover up what Dufresne calls “a state lie”. That lie involves the unfounded assumption that the police are simply going about their normal business of maintaining order, and that there have been a number of unfortunate accidents.

That, says David Dufresne, is a myth which will not stand up in a confrontation with the facts.

And he complains that this is not a case of official “silence,” it’s actually a question of “denial”.

The media have their responsibility too, according to Dufresne, who says the fact that police officers feel they can get away without being filmed, photographed or reported on adds an additional encouragement to the excessively violent actions of some.

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