On Saturday, there was another wave of Yellow Vest protests in France. The focus was not the price of diesel, the carbon tax, the cost of living or President Macron, as has been the norm, but police brutality and their use of rubber bullets.
Thousands took to the streets of Paris and elsewhere instead in a ‘march of the injured’, calling for a ban on police weapons that shoot 40mm rubber projectiles (the interior minister, Christophe Castaner, has acknowledged that the weapon, used more than 9,000 times since the beginning of the protests, could cause injuries.) An estimated 10,000 turned out at the Place de la Republique, where they were met with police tear-gas and water cannons. Clashes ensued between police and protesters.
Since the gilets jaunes first emerged in November, more than a dozen people have been grievously injured in weekly protests – losing their eyes, or having their hands and feet mutilated. According to the government’s own figures, at least 1,700 people have been injured in the months of conflict.
‘They shoot at the population with a weapon of war,’ said Jérôme Rodrigues, a prominent figure in the movement, who suffered a serious and permanent eye injury in Paris last month. ‘Is that what France is like today? We just want to fill the fridge and we end up losing an eye.’ YouTube and Twitter abound with videos of police brutality, with one much-viewed piece of footage which appears to show French police smashing a protestor’s head on the pavement.
Aïnoha Pascual, a Paris lawyer who has represented several of the injured by rubber bullets, including one who has had part of his hand ripped off, and another left partially deaf and with facial injuries, told the Guardian that she has never seen so many injuries during protests. ‘These weapons are a very real problem. In the 1980s, if one person was hit in the eye at a demonstration there would be a huge reaction, yet now there is no reaction from government.’
Meanwhile, last week a collective of lawyers petitioned the French government to ban golf-ball sized ‘sting-ball’ grenades, which contain 25g of TNT high-explosive. France is the only country in Europe where police use such high-power grenades, which issue stinging rubber balls loaded with teargas.
Elsewhere, France 3 reported on Friday that an investigation has been launched in Toulouse after officers were caught on tape saying they wanted to ‘shoot’ violent gilets jaunes protesters. In the footage, recorded at a police command room during a rally in the city on January 12, one officer is heard saying: ‘There’s one on the ground there.’ Another comments: ‘What a bunch of bastards!’
Trained riot police officers have blamed much of the police brutality on mobile units of plain-clothes anti-gang police, drafted in to help cope with the weekend protests by masked gilet jaunes. But whoever is to blame, the fact remains that these protests in France have been the longest-running and most violent in living memory.
The EU has so far failed to publicly denounce a power within it. It has remained silent for the same reason it failed to condemn Madrid after Spanish police beat up voters in Catalonia in 2017 following the region’s unofficial independence referendum. The EU also failed to condemn the simultaneous incarceration of Catalan separatist activists, nine of whom are still in prison. On Friday, thousands held a protest in Barcelona on their behalf.
The EU has failed to denounce Spanish state brutality because the Catalan independence movement could destabilise or even tear apart the Spanish state. This could have knock-on effects in Europe, giving succour to Flemish and Scottish separatist movements, and destabilising the EU itself.
The EU has similarly failed to speak out against the French state because the gilet jaunes not only imperil the stability of the pro-EU French government, but because most of their numbers are openly hostile to the EU. They are often pictured bearing placards calling for ‘Frexit’. They are symbolic of a Europe-wide revolt against a perceived remote and privileged elite, which they feel the EU embodies.
The gilets jaunes represent the pan-European, left-behind ‘somewhere’ people, the deplorables who resent what they see as a neoliberal, pro-immigration, big business-friendly ruling class – also personified by the EU. The EU’s silence over the maltreatment of people who live inside its borders in France will only cement this perception.
The EU leaders pay no attention to such abuses because its unaccountable politicians cannot be voted out. And in the end, their inaction will further antagonise those who see the EU as a self-serving, detached overlord, a body which is interested foremost and solely in its own self-preservation.