The horrifying images of middle and high school students, outdoors in the suburban city of Mantes La Jolie, on their knees, hands behind their heads surrounded by police officers, shocked France. As the social protests continue, French President Emmanuel Macron is facing the toughest crisis his presidency has ever seen.
The ‘gilets jaunes’ movement (named after the yellow fluorescent safety vest that drivers have to possess in their cars) started as a denouncement of a rise in fuel tax but later grew into a general and national uprising that included the middle and working classes. The rallies expressed their disapproval over the government’s policies which, according to them, tend to favour the most privileged.
High school students quickly joined the movement, and the list of general demands has grown to include minimum wages, retirement, and social security.
In a democratic country, citizens would expect the government to give political responses. But repression and a militarised police force was the first response of the state towards its citizens before it even considered backtracking on the most unpopular measures.
Several journalists have reported on the massive use of Flash-balls by the police. Numerous cases have seen unarmed peaceful protesters presenting themselves with raised hands only to be shot by Flash-balls for no apparent reason. Journalists were met with teargas, even though they were visibly identified as press.
One of the journalists whose heavily injured face was on the front cover of the Spanish newspaper El Pais has decided to sue the French state. Journalist David Dufresne has been scrupulously documenting what he considers abuses of power by the police and has recorded more than 160 instances of misconduct to date.
A high number of protesters have lost eyes because of the Flash-balls or hands as a consequence of the explosion of grenades launched by the police.
On December 5, in Paris alone, the CRS (Republican Security Companies, a police unit specialising in crowd control) shot 10,000 grenades. As a result, some of the units were out of stock.
There is no doubt a small minority came with the explicit aim of acting violently and to destroy property. Those serious offences, however, should not prevent us from questioning the repressive pattern the French police have been reproducing over and over.
In a radio show, Jeanine Depuydt, a retired woman who joined the ‘gilets jaunes’, told the station that she was shocked to be exposed to so much brutality from the police.
Another guest of the show, Youcef Brakni told her that it was an issue the banlieues (areas with heavy immigrant populations) have been experiencing for a very long time.
Brakni is involved in the Comité Adama, which has been seeking justice for two years following the death of a young black man, Adama Traore, who suffocated at the hands of the gendarmes. What citizens who live in the impoverished inner cities have experienced and denounced for decades has suddenly jumped to the eyes of a larger segment of the white French population.
Knowing that history, it is difficult not to link those practices with the despicable video of the children (the youngest is twelve years old) of Mantes La Jolie, humiliated by the police. Mantes La Jolie is a city in the suburbs of Paris, considered to be part of the banlieues, those poor neighbourhoods known for their projects, numerous inhabitants from immigrant backgrounds and for their high rates of unemployment. That day of December 6, 153 students were collectively arrested after protesting at two high schools.
The result went viral on social media: all of them forced to kneel down, hands behind their heads, or handcuffed facing a wall, surrounded by an impressive number of police officers telling them not to move their head and to look straight.
On the leaked video a cruel sound of irony could be heard in the voice of one of them when he said with a laugh: “There you go, a class that stays quiet, let us show that to their teachers.”. According to several witnesses, the scene lasted several hours.
Then the students were held in custody. Almost none of them had any police record. Several of them were interrogated without the presence of a lawyer although the law makes that condition compulsory for minors. A journalist reported that one of them, who is only 17, slept on the floor and received racial slurs while in custody.
While commenting on the outrageous arrests, Jean-Michel Blanquer, the Minister for Education, said that though the images “shocked” him, it was necessary to “put them in context”. Segolene Royal, a former candidate in the presidential election, said: “It will not hurt them to know what the policing of public spaces and the fact of staying quiet looks like. They will keep a memory out of it.”
Many are left wondering what context can allow such a display of violence.
On Twitter, UNICEF France condemned the “undignified treatment“ and described those acts as abusing children’s rights. In solidarity, several groups of high school students and adult protesters have kneeled in public all around France, including on the symbolic Place de la République.
In 2018, the Defender of Rights, a body in charge of monitoring the rights of citizens, recommended banning the use of Flash-balls.
Since the beginning of the ‘gilets jaunes’ uprisings, several teenagers have been maimed by state-sponsored violence. The general level of repression and violence has been too high. It is time now to reconsider the way the police handle and control crowds, in order to preserve the right to protest.
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