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Are things about to change for French police after 'unacceptable' injuries at demos?

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Are things about to change for French police after 'unacceptable' injuries at demos?
Methods of policing protests in France have come under scrutiny. Photo: AFP
15:24 CEST+02:00
Methods of policing demonstrations and protests in France could be reviewed after the "unacceptable injuries" suffered during 'yellow vest' protests.

French president Emmanuel Macron told the Presidential Press Association that there were "unacceptable injuries" suffered by both police and protesters during the months of 'yellow vest' protests.

He added that: "This should lead us to rethink certain methods of intervention."


The months of 'yellow vest' protests saw many protesters and police injured. Photo: AFP

Is there a problem with policing in France?

The policing methods for protests have certainly been under the spotlight in recent months with the Compagnies républicaines de sécurité (CRS), the specialist unit that deals with crowd control, singled out for harsh criticism.

The months of 'yellow vest' protests saw violence from both sides, but dozens of protesters were seriously injured, with several losing a hand or an eye from the controversial Flash Ball riot guns used by French police.

The subject of police brutality became an extra strand to the 'yellow vest' campaign and there have been several demonstrations on the subject, with marchers holding up pictures of the gruesome mutilations suffered by some participants in demonstrations.

It should be pointed out that several police officers have also been injured during the protests, and on one demonstration a group of 'yellow vests' were heard taunting police and telling them to 'commit suicide' - a reference to the very high suicide rates seen within the French police force.

Antoine Boudinet and Patrice Philippe were both wounded during 'yellow vest' protests. Photo: AFP

But after the 'yellow vest' protest began to die down, there were two other incidents that further damaged the reputation of French policing.

The first was in July when police in Paris were filmed spraying teargas in the faces of peaceful climate change protesters who were holding a sit-down demonstration about France's environmental policies. The footage went round the world and drew sharp criticism.

The other incident happened in Nantes during the Fête de la musique when a group of techno fans were ordered to stop partying and go home at about 4am. When they refused they were charged by police and several fell into the river, including a 24-year-old teaching assistant named Steve Canico who could not swim.

He was missing for several weeks before his body was eventually found in the river, and during that time the 'Où est Steve' (where's Steve) protest movement began to highlight what many felt was a typically heavy-handed police response.  

There have been several marches protesting the police's handling of the situation in Nantes, as well as the police watchdog report that cleared the officers involved of any wrongdoing, and posters asking Où est Steve? can still be seen all over France.

The death of Steve Canico sparked a nationwide protest about police brutality. Photo: AFP

So what's going to be done about it?

Well there hasn't been any kind of detailed policy announcement, just the comment by Macron about "rethinking" methods of policing protests. It could be that he has no concrete plans, and is just reacting to a public mood that is increasingly critical of the police.

In the same comment, he also said he was "very vigilant" about the levels of fatigue among police officers.

French police forces have been stretched tight recently, with the months of nationwide protest following terror attacks and coming at a time when many departments were already short staffed, leading to a heavy burden of overtime and cancelled leave.

This has been cited as one factor behind the worryingly high suicide rates among French officers - an average of one suicide every four days.

How have the police reacted?

But even one somewhat vague comment about a review of methods has been enough to spark an angry response from the UNSA Police union, which represents officers of the CRS.

Interviewed by radio station France Info, the union's national secretary David Michaux said he was shocked and considered the president's words "offensive".

He told the radio station: "We are quite surprised by the desire to question the method of employment of the police, given that for us it works very, very well."

"We were expecting a message of support from the President of the Republic, especially with the G7 approaching, with the number of law enforcement agencies involved, which will ensure the security of all participants. To hear that kind of talk, though, is more than offensive to us."

He added that the police have acknowledged shortcomings and errors in the policing of the 'yellow vest' protests, but had improved methods of communication and become more reactive at deploying specialist units of CRS officers to places where they were needed. 

There is a heavy police presence in Biarritz ahead of the weekend's G7 summit. Photo: AFP

Why is this timely?

Starting on Saturday in Biarritz is the G7 summit, which is likely to see high levels of protest. Over the years G7 meetings have often proved to be flashpoints of protest with the Biarritz one looking to be no exception.

Already a major security operation is in place with 10,000 officers involved, roadblocks on the border with Spain and large parts of the town blocked off.

Protesters are supposed to stay in a specially designated camp 25km away but many have already said they will be trying to enter the forbidden parts of the town, so conflict with French police seems inevitable.


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