UN condemns French police violence against 'yellow vests'

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The United Nations has followed the European Parliament in criticising the policing of some demonstrations staged by 'yellow vest' protestors in France. The UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights condemned what she called the “excessive use of force” used by the police on some occasions. The criticism came after interior minister Christophe Castaner's terse response to opposition MP Loïc Prud’homme after the latter was hit with a baton during a yellow vest protest last Saturday March 2nd in Bordeaux. Carine Fouteau reports.

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Yet another international body has criticised France's policing of the 'yellow vest' protests in recent months. But so far the authorities in Paris appear unmoved by their critics. The first criticism came from the European Parliament which on February 14th 2019 passed a resolution attacking the “disproportionate” use of force by police in France at the demonstrations, which began last November. Now it is the turn of the United Nations' High Commissioner for Human Rights to raise the alarm about the “excessive use of force” against the yellow vest protestors.

On Wednesday March 6th the human rights commissioner Michelle Bachelet, speaking at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, called for a “full investigation” into claims of police violence. These incidents have been recorded since the start of the protests by the documentary maker David Dufresne (see Mediapart's graphic on this, 'Allô place Beauvau', here). The latest figures are 500 people injured during the protests, some of them with irreversible injuries.

The police intervene at a 'yellow vest' protest in Nantes in western France on February 16th 2019. © Reuters The police intervene at a 'yellow vest' protest in Nantes in western France on February 16th 2019. © Reuters
The former president of Chile said the 'yellow vests' had been protesting about “what they see as exclusion from economic rights and participation in public affairs”. Michelle Bachelet also pointed out that inequalities affected all countries, including prosperous ones, and encouraged the French government to “continue dialogue”. And, in an unflattering juxtapositioning, she also criticised the recent violent repression of demonstrations in Sudan, Zimbabwe and Haiti.

The official French government spokesperson, Benjamin Griveaux, quickly reacted to the commissioner's words, making it clear the government did not appreciate being “cited in a list between Venezuela and Haiti, where there have been deaths”. The official spokesperson, who pointed out that as of March 1st some 162 investigations had been opened into various incidents, added: “We've always been extremely clear: investigations have been opened each time it's been necessary.”

The intervention from Michelle Bachelet came the day after a lively exchange in France's National Assembly relating to the 'yellow vest' protests. During questions to the government the Member of Parliament for the radical left La France Insoumise party, Loïc Prud’homme, attacked what he called the government's “authoritarian drift”, having spoken about how he was “hit with a baton” on Saturday March 2nd as he”peacefully” left a yellow vest demonstration in the south-west city of Bordeaux.

The minister of the interior, Christophe Castaner, responded by stating that “it's not the place of an MP to be in a place where a demonstration has been banned, it's not for an MP to overturn [that], to provoke, to reduce the security forces' protective shield”.

Interior minister Christophe Castaner replies to complaints by opposition MP Loïc Prud’homme in the National Assembly March 5th 2019. © lcp
Meanwhile, at a press conference at the end of February alongside German chancellor Angela Merkel, President Emmanuel Macron himself defended the use of non-lethal riot control weapons, declaring that “the best manner of avoiding the use of [non-lethal weapons] is to avoid people considering that Saturday afternoon is there to break windows or institutions or attack the forces of order”. President Macron added: “I say very simply that I will not leave the forces of order without any means either to ensure pubic order or defend themselves against people who today arrive armed and with the worst intentions.”

The United Nations had already given its views on such weapons back in February, citing a group of its experts on human rights who expressed concern at the “high number of arrests and detentions, searches and confiscations of demonstrators' possessions, and serious injuries have been caused by a disproportionate use of so-called ‘non-lethal’ weapons like grenades and defensive bullets or ‘flashballs’”. This group of experts called on France to “rethink its law enforcement policies and encourage the French authorities to establish avenues for dialogue to reduce tension and to recognize the important and legitimate role that social movements play in governance” The group also pointed to the risk of “severe restrictions on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly” contained in the new planned 'anti-rioter' legislation on public order. France's upper chamber, the Senate, announced on Wednesday March 7th that it would back this legislation without modifications, after it was approved a few weeks ago by the National Assembly.

The Council of Europe, meanwhile, went further by calling last month for France to “suspend the use” of the non-lethal rubber bullet launchers in operations to maintain public order. This demand had been made by France's independent human rights ombudsman Jacques Toubon.

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  • The French version of this article can be found here.

English version by Michael Streeter

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