- Created: Friday, 26 April 2019 11:41
- Written by Nicki Jameson
Saturday 20 April 2019 was the 23rd occasion on which Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vest) anti-austerity protesters took to the streets of Paris and other French cities. Coming the week after the fire at Notre Dame cathedral and as billions of dollars were being pledged for its reconstruction, some demonstrators carried placards with slogans such as: ‘Millions for Notre-Dame, what about the poor?’ and ‘Tout pour Notre-Dame, rien pour les misérables.’
Since demonstrations began on 17 November 2018 the French police and justice system have responded with increasing repression. Protesters are now routinely tear-gassed, baton charged and shot in the feet with rubber bullets. Before the 20 April Paris protest had even got underway, 70 potential protesters had been ‘preventatively’ arrested and six armoured tanks were stationed on the city streets. Protesters were then bombarded by water cannon and teargas; 227 people were arrested and police carried out 20,500 spot check searches.
Injuries and fatalities
On 8 December 2018, 20-year-old Fiorina Lignier, who was attending the protest for the first time, lost her eye after being struck with a teargas canister fired by CRS riot police in the Champs Elysée in Paris. This is far from an isolated incident. On that one Saturday a total of 325 people sustained injuries, including a man in Bordeaux who lost his hand. By February 2019, 17 people had lost an eye in the protests according to the Desarmons-les (Disarm them) collective, and a deputation from the Society of French Ophthalmologists requested a meeting with Minister of Health Agnès Buzyn to discuss the alarming frequency of eye injuries caused by police action.
President Emmanuel Macron has defended the use of controversial rubber bullet launchers, lanceurs de balles de défense (LBDs), against the protesters he describes as the ‘thugs of Saturday afternoon’, despite criticism from both the Council of Europe and the UN high commissioner on human rights. LBDs are banned in most European countries. In January 2019, French newspaper Liberation stated that to date 144 people had been seriously injured in the protests, 92 as a result of LBDs. The police are also armed with flash grenades, which they throw directly into crowds, often resulting in the loss of protesters’ hands or feet.
On 1 December 2018 this police violence proved lethal for 80-year-old Marseille resident Zineb Redouane, who died of a heart attack after a teargas canister was fired into the window of her fourth floor flat, overlooking the protest. On 15 April Zineb’s family announced that they had filed a legal complaint about her death, with the request that it be dealt with by a jurisdiction outside of Marseille, as the local authorities would be unable to act impartially.
Arrests and detention
As of 2 April, 9,219 people had been taken into custody, according to figures issued by the French Ministry of Justice. On 5 April, Sandra Molinero, the president of the Rouen Society of Lawyers (SAF), spoke out about repeated problems experienced by solicitors attempting to get access to detained protesters. Her account was echoed by the national president of SAF, who gave the media an account of arrested protesters being actively dissuaded from exercising their right to see a lawyer.
On 13 March Paris prosecutor Rémy Heitz issued a written statement defending the use of preventative detention. Heitz had issued guidelines to magistrates to the effect that would-be protesters could be arrested and detained prior to the time of the weekly demonstrations and then released late that night or on the Sunday morning, specifically in order to stop them from joining the protests. Mediapart website described this as ‘Ubuesque [surreal] and blatantly illegal’.
At the beginning of April, Macron signed into law legislation which included powers to ban protesters from covering their faces and to ban from demonstrations any individual deemed to pose a ‘particularly serious threat to public order’; however France's Constitutional Council has so far refused to sanction the most contentious parts of the legislation.
Despite all this, the protests continue. As a regular participant in the demonstrations in Toulouse quoted on Facebook put it:
‘People have been gassed; they have been shot at with flash balls and have been battered by police. Some have lost eyes, hands, teeth; but the great thing is they have also lost their fear... they have completely lost their fear. And the movement itself has developed a sense of great solidarity and fraternity or friendship among different ages all different types from different backgrounds.’
For our analysis of the political character of the Gilet Jaunes protests see: