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Are France's riot police too violent?

Jerome Rodrigues, an organiser with France's Yellow Vest movement, was injured in his eye at the Bastille area in Paris, 26 January 2019.
Jerome Rodrigues, an organiser with France's Yellow Vest movement, was injured in his eye at the Bastille area in Paris, 26 January 2019. AFP/Zakaria Abdelkafi

France is one of the few European countries that authorises the LBD-40, a crowd control weapon that shoots rubber bullets. The weapons have come under close scrutiny, especially after a Yellow Vest protest organiser who was hit during demonstrations risks losing the use of his right eye.

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Jerome Rodrigues has lodged a complaint against police after being hurt in his right eye in the Bastille area of Paris on the eleventh consecutive Saturday of Yellow Vest demonstrations.

In a video that Rodrigues was live streaming on Facebook, the 39-year-old construction worker is heard lamenting the black bloc protesters whose appearance and clashes with riot police marred what was until then an orderly demonstration.

He urges other Yellow Vests to leave the area when he is hit by a projectile and collapses. Rodrigues was taken to hospital where he will stay until doctors evaluate whether he will be able to use his eye again.

He said on Sunday that investigators charged with overseeing police conduct confirmed footage of the scene contained evidence of the use of a grenade and rubber bullet shot in rapid succession the moment he was injured.

Rodrigues claims he was hit by the more controversial of these, a rubber bullet also known as a Flash-ball, and that he passed the projectile along to the investigators.

France’s government contested this claim though, with Junior Interior Minister Laurent Nunez said there was “no element that confirms that Mr. Rodrigues was hit by the use of an LBD”.

Flash-ball controversy

France is one of few European countries that authorises the LBD-40, a crowd control weapon that shoots the rubber bullets and which has come under increasing scrutiny since Yellow Vest protests began in mid-November.

One a group of activists called Desarmons-les (Disarm Them) claims as many as 20 people have lost an eye (or in Rodrigues’s case, risk losing one) since demonstrations began.

Rights groups inside and outside of France have sounded the alarm as well, with France’s League for Human Rights calling last week for the weapon to be banned, and the Council of Europe sending its human rights commissioner to Paris.

Dunja Mijatovic, human rights commissioner with the Council of Europe rights group, was to meet government and police officials as well as journalists and members of civil society regarding “human rights issues related to the Yellow Vest movement”, she wrote on Twitter.

Government defends 'non-lethal' weapons

Nunez said Monday that riot police would continue to be equipped with “non-lethal” defence weapons such as the LBD-40 and the grenades, saying they were being used in a “proportional” manner.

“We are going to continue to use these non-lethal defence weapons, which are only used when confronted with violent individuals,” said Nunez, who had previously stated that 45 security officials had been injured on Saturday.

“They will not be used widely,” the minister continued. “Without their use, security personnel might have been badly hurt or even killed.”

Police also say non-lethal weapons are needed to maintain order.

The Yellow Vests themselves have been criticised for creating the conditions for the violence that regular features on the fringes of otherwise peaceful rallies.

A group calling themselves the Red Scarves held a counter-demonstration in Paris on Sunday to “denounce the insurrectional climate installed by the yellow vests”.

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