France’s War on Protest
By Peter Matjašič
With tears running down a bruised cheek, Vanessa Langard, a woman who participated in a protest against the policies of the French government on the Champs Élysées, recalls how she was shot by a “flash ball” projectile that was fired by a police officer. After several surgeries, Vanessa has nearly lost the use of her left eye and also suffers from memory disorders and posttraumatic stress disorder.
The event was organized by the gilets jaunes (yellow vests), an amorphous and leaderless movement of largely white working-class citizens demanding economic justice that, some say, has been hijacked by forces of extremism on both the right and the left. After a violent element of the movement hurled bricks at police on the Champs Élysées, and ransacked the Arc de Triomphe, media attention around the world exploded. Soon thereafter, Paris experienced a large influx of police. Clashes between police and protesters have resulted in estimates of more than 2,000 people suffering serious harm.
Langard is featured in the documentary Yellow Vests: A State Repression made by the independent, youth-centered news portal StreetPress. The film explores how French President Emmanuel Macron’s government is resorting to increasingly authoritarian tactics to counter protest—including the use of crime squad officers, who are normally tasked with drug- or terrorism-related raids, to quell demonstrations in the city with an ever-expanding arsenal of harmful weapons.
In March, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet called for a full investigation into excessive force used by French police against protesters. But as well as responding with an influx of police, heavy-handed legislation was introduced by the French government to give police the power to search demonstrators and ban them from covering their faces. It was only thanks to the constitutional court that a particularly pernicious measure enabling police to ban anyone preemptively suspected of being a troublemaker was struck down.
The assault on civil society in Turkey and Russia is entrenched and well-documented. In Europe’s east, the governments of Poland and Hungary barely disguise their dismantling of hard-won democratic achievements. And yet, in Western Europe, a complacency can take root when it comes to fundamental freedoms; we take them for granted and when government legislation begins to quietly, or violently, erode them many of us don’t believe it’s happening.
For a supposed liberal democracy to be blinding protesters, granting authorities sweeping search powers, presiding over an effectively permanent state of emergency, arresting journalists [link in French], and receiving condemnation from the United Nations and Amnesty International, should concern us all.
If the government’s aim is to quell unrest, these repressive measures are having the opposite effect. President Macron’s overzealous policing has, for example, had the perverse effect of making political dissidents of the far right, who ultimately have no interest in civil liberties but scream censorship when their views are curtailed online. Widely shared videos of their members injured at the hands of the state provide provocative content for fundraising drives.
It is possible to both stand against the far-right element in the gilets jaunes and denounce the police brutality meted out against them.
The militarization of French policing strategy is not a new phenomenon; it was on full display during the 2005 banlieus riots and Muslims and other marginalized groups have long received disproportionate harassment by authorities. Now, though, it has reached center stage.
The anti-casseurs legislation characterizes protest as a “riot” and in doing so makes the peaceful majority complicit in the actions of the violent few. The promotion of public order over individual rights and freedoms should be seen as part of a broader, global trend of democratic backsliding and the choking of civil society that needs countering at every level.
Long associated with being a beacon of liberty, France is straying into deeply illiberal territory. Two hundred thirty years later, the freedom and equality celebrated on Bastille Day deserves to be honored.
StreetPress is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations.
Peter Matjašič is a senior program officer for the Open Society Initiative for Europe.