French police brutality now subject to international inquiry

  • Nadine Sayegh
  • 15 Apr 2019

Is France finally being scrutinised for the violence perpetrated on Yellow Vest protestors?

A demonstrator was sprayed with pepper gas in Paris.Credit ( AP )

On Wednesday, March 6 this year, the United Nations opened a formal inquiry into the use of police violence against France for their treatment of the Yellow Vest protestors. 

The UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet and former Chilean president, compared the use of force in France to that seen in protests in Sudan and Haiti. 

She said, “in income, wealth, access to resources and access to justice constitute fundamental challenges to the principles of equality, dignity and human rights for every human being.” 

She also urged the government to continue an open dialogue with the protestors.

The Yellow Vests have been protesting for more than 23 weeks on issues related to economic and political rights and have been met mainly with violent retaliation from armed forces.

Amnesty International issued a statement late last year highlighting, “Police used rubber bullets, sting-ball grenades and tear gas against largely peaceful protesters who did not threaten public order and the organisation has documented numerous instances of excessive use of force by police.” 

Injuries recorded include loss of limbs, damage and complete loss of sight, deafness, facial disfigurement, amongst many others. As of December 2018, approximately 1,500 people were injured, 50 seriously. 

More recent, but conservative, estimates from the government put the number at 1,700 with an additional 1,000 police officers injured since the protests began. The French government's numbers have not been independently verified.

Different local organisations put the number of injured at between 2,000 and 3,000.

A childcare worker from Normandy, north of Paris, explains how her two sons have been permanently damaged by the police during the protests. Not only have they suffered severe physical damage permanently disabling them but she says, “The physical damage was acute, but so is the psychological damage. Any noise makes me jump now, even the sound of a plastic bottle being crushed. I can’t look at images of the police on TV. My son has holes in his forehead; he can’t look at his mutilated hand. My other son will have shrapnel in his body for life as it’s too dangerous to remove all of it. We feel totally alone. We haven’t heard from the state. It’s as if we don’t exist.”

Despite launching investigations into allegations of abuse and brutality, the response from the French government has been relatively weak. 

French government representative Benjamin Grievaux responds to the UN High Commissioner, “We have always been extremely clear about it. Every time it was necessary, investigations were launched. It is surprising, however, to find us listed between Venezuela and Haiti, where there have been deaths.”

Problematic culture

More surprising still is the representative of one of the leading democracies in the world implies that only if death is the outcome, is a human rights abuse investigation necessary.

However, despite his ‘defence’, estimates put the deaths of between 15 to 20 people a year dying in police custody, and while the number is decreasing annually, there is an increase in severe injuries inflicted amongst those in custody. 

The crowd control techniques enforced by the French forces on protestors were previously used in the refugee camp of Calais, where it is estimated that 1,000 human rights violations were recorded. 

The use of rubber bullets and smoke grenades caused similar injuries to those suffered by the Yellow Vest protestors today. Some reports highlight that these practices have traditionally been used against ‘invisible’ communities throughout France for quite some time.

Large crowd-control situations are not the only place where police powers are going unchecked. In recent years several high profile cases brought to the forefront the extent of unauthorised police force. It comes as little surprise that the majority of these violations are inflicted on minorities – people of colour.

Almost three years after the death of the young Adama Traore little progress has been made in the case with his family still waiting to find out the police's role in his death. 

Law enforcement says that the young black man died due to asphyxiation from pre-existing conditions such as sickle cell anaemia. However, his family and many in the general public believe this to be false. 

Traore’s sister, says on the recent progress made, “We are relieved. We’ve been calling for the truth for nearly three years now, and today four eminent experts have written in black and white that his death was due to asphyxiation - that the gendarmes are responsible for Adama Traore's death, and that the technique used in his arrest led to his asphyxia. 

We have all the elements - to put them on trial and get a conviction.” 

The ‘Face-Down’ apprehension technique discussed here is banned in the EU, except for France. The family is waiting on the courts to hear whether they can seek justice against the gendarme force – they are hopeful.

Other high profile cases against the French armed forces include the sodomy of a young boy held and violated in police custody, Theo Luhaka, in what is known locally as the ‘Theo Affair.’ 

Protests consumed the suburbs of France and the anger from marginalised communities was clearly felt. The French President at the time, Francois Hollande, met Theo at his hospital bedside in a highly publicised visit. It is vital that efforts to scrutinise police practices are made continuously to keep law enforcement from breaching its limits.

All this, and we have yet to consider the random stop-and-search policies implemented at the police’s discretion throughout the country, the intimidation and seizure techniques used, and the disproportionate punishment applied for similar crimes committed by people of different ethnicities.

Aside from the hot water Macron continues to find himself in each Saturday as the protests take place across the country, now, at long last, some international attention is being placed on the brutish police force of a country that prides itself on liberty, equality, and fraternity. 

We can only hope the investigations underway convict guilty officers and set an example for others, or France, at the very least, must dismount from its moral high-horse.

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