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The French State & the Violence of the Police: “A War Machine That Has Neither Remorse nor Misgiving, and Where All Blows Are Allowed”

Last updated on 28th July 2019

Documenting police and legal violence: on Wednesday, March 20th, witnesses, experts, journalists, and lawyers did this essential work during a public meeting in Paris, stressing the seriousness of the authoritarian breakout that is taking place.

The big hall of the Bourse du Travail in Paris was full in the evening of Wednesday, March 20th, for the presentation of the first conclusions of the “commission of inquiry” on repression, police violence, the anti-demonstrations law, organised at the call of trade union organisations (Syndicat des avocats de France, syndicat de la magistrature, NPA, Solidaires, Ensemble, CGT Paris, Copernic, etc). For three hours, the “investigators” – the president and co-founder of Mediapart Edwy Plenel, the lawyer and member of the syndicate of lawyers of France (SAF) Judith Krivine, and the journalist of Radio France Antoine Chao – orchestrated the speeches of numerous witnesses on three themes: those wounded during demonstrations, repressive policies, and the outlook.

Ian B., a member of the collective Désarmons-les! (Disarm them!), opened the evening with the provisional assessment established by the collective – 170 were seriously injured since the beginning of the mobilisation of the Yellow Vests, in November 2018. The collective, which comes from the Assembly of the wounded, constituted in November 2014 in Montreuil following the death of Rémi Fraisse, gave itself the mission of accompanying wounded people and their families during their judicial journey and their psychological reconstruction, and also to inform about the maintenance of order in France – especially the weapons used. “This is a reality we were not expecting: we have recorded as many injuries in 3 months as we did in the previous 20 years,” said Ian B.

Axelle Marquise, 28, a waitress in Six-Fours (Var), was injured on Saturday, December 8th, on the Champs-Elysées in Paris. She suffered a second degree burn on her right cheek, a major haematoma, and a double fracture of the jaw.

The assessment of the journalist David Dufresne, disseminated on his Twitter feed and on Mediapart, specifies the picture: 1 death – that of Zineb Redouane, 80, who was hit in the face by a tear gas grenade while she closed her shutters on December 2nd in Marseille; 222 wounded in the head; 22 blinded eyes; and 5 ripped off hands. Since December the independent journalist has called out to the Ministry of the Interior about the wounds caused by police weapons and the abuses committed by the police, by the formula that become a ritual “hello @Place_Beauvau – it is for a report”. “For more than a month I worked alone. At first there was a great media silence, which contributed to the political denial. This week, we still heard the Minister of the Interior, Christophe Castaner, lamenting that the flash ball launchers [LBD 40] had not been sufficiently used. That’s wrong, a young man lost his eye near Fouquet’s on March 16th and no one talked about it.”

Laurent Thines: “A LBD-40 projectile launched at more than 90 meters per second has an impact force of 200 joules. It’s like dropping a breeze block weighing 20 pounds from a height of 1 meter on the face.”

Laurent Thines, a neurosurgeon and head of department at Besançon University Regional Hospital Center, launched a petition in January asking for “a moratorium on the use of so-called less lethal weapons”. While scrolling through unbearable images of smashed jaws, ripped off hands, and enucleated eye sockets, he warned about the damage caused by intermediate weapons – LBD-40, instant teargas grenades GLI-F4, flashbangs – on human bodies. “A LBD-40 projectile launched at more than 90 meters per second, or 324 kilometers per hour, has an impact force of 200 joules. It’s like dropping a breeze block weighing 20 pounds from a height of one meter on the face or head!” In front of an x-ray of a Yellow Vest who was shot by a LBD in the temple, he denounced an injury similar to those caused by car accidents or baseball bat hits: “The skull is caved in and, worse from my neurosurgeon’s point of view, the brain beneath it is damaged. Now, the brain, we only get one of those, and once it is damaged we never really recover. Those who have a loved one who have had a stroke know it.”

In order to protest against the manufacture and marketing of these weapons, Ian B. relayed a call to block the factories manufacturing these weapons from Friday, March 29th: the headquarters of Alsetex in Muret (Haute-Garonne) and its factory in Mazères (Ariège), the factory of Flash-Balls and flashbangs Verney Carron in Saint-Étienne (Loire), the Nobel tear-gas grenades factory in Pont-de-Buis-lès-Quimerch (Finistère), etc.

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These injuries are part of a context of repressive policies, observed and analysed the witnesses of the following debate. Overall, “Successive governments have deprived workers of their rights and make accessing justice more difficult, which in turn makes appeals more and more discouraging. Soon, they will only be able to resort to violence in order to make themselves heard, as Stéphane Brizé’s film ‘En guerre’ shows,” warned Mrs Krivine.

The Minister of the Interior, Christophe Castaner, and his Secretary of State, Laurent Nunez (on his right), January 5th, 2019.

At the same time, the repression of social movements is intensifying. Christian Mouhanna, sociologist and Director of the Center for Sociological Research on Law and Criminal Institutions (Cesdip), observes a “repressive leap forward” that successive governments try to justify by making an “amalgam between suburban populations assimilated to terrorists and protesters”. This strategy, initiated by the law on daily security from November 2001, continued during the climate protests in late 2015 and those against the Labor Law of 2016. In addition, “we are witnessing the calling into question of maintaining of French-style order, which consisted in creating specialised troops to strive towards zero deaths and the least possible number of wounded,” said the sociologist, pointing to the recent presence at protests of the anti-crime brigade (BAC), “just stupidly repressive”, and its militarisation.

Anne-Sophie Wallach, National Secretary of the Judicial Syndicate, for her part denounced the instrumentalisation of the law “no longer to punish people who have committed crimes, but for ways of maintaining order”. “On December 8th, for more than 900 placements in custody, we had more than 500 proceedings without further action because of a lack of evidence against people,” she said. Behind these massive arrests is the offence of participating in a group with the intention to commit violence, introduced into law in 2010 to combat the “gangs” of working-class neighbourhoods – “a vague qualification, in any case extensive, that allows detention in custody as this offence is punishable by imprisonment”. Another lever is the special requisition, “which allows law enforcement to check identity in the railway stations, at toll booths, without resorting to conventional criteria”. Finally, the magistrate denounced the pressure exerted on the justice, notably by the keeper of the Seals: “On December 8th, the minister went to the Paris Prosecutor’s department, where the magistrates receive calls concerning police custody, in order to announce that there should be firmness. This pressure is not acceptable. However, they are reinforced by the prosecutor of Paris, who delivered as an instruction to the full-time magistrates during the week-end of mobilisation not to end detention on the Saturday evening or the Sunday morning, even in case of dropping the charges. It is a desire to impede the right to protest written in black and white!”

Many activists have paid the price for these policies. Among them, the departmental secretary of SUD PTT, Gaël Quirante, who denounced 13 police interventions in his postal center and four summonses to the police station for violation of domicile, against postal workers strikes in Île-de-France. In the hall, a Yellow Vest spoke about the police repression against the first “Yellow Night”, January 26th, at the Place de la République in Paris: “Until 7 pm, the atmosphere was very festive. Then, without warning, the police flooded the place with tear gas and charged to push us against the water cannons. We had nowhere to go, we were gassed, it was very violent.”

A policeman in Toulouse, on January 12th.

Prospects for mobilizations were addressed in the third part of the evening. “The government is preparing to ban the fight with what it calls the ‘anti-breakers law’, but at the union we call it the ‘anti-protesters law’,” warned Laurence Roques, president of SAF. The law, originally tabled by Republican Senator Bruno Retailleau, was first forgotten before being resurrected by the government, which manoeuvred to adopt it on March 12th, despite reluctance even in the majority. “Anyone can be banned a priori from protesting, as their behaviour suggests that it can cause a disturbance to public order,” said the lawyer. “Only an administrative judge of interim measures can invalidate this decision, but the protest will be finished even before he has time to making a ruling”. Other freedom-killing measures, in the eyes of Mr. Roques, are the offence of concealing the face – “the law does not specify whether sunglasses or a scarf constitute concealment” – and the creation of dossiers on persons who have disturbed public order or “expressed their opinion”“a measure that runs counter to the 1978 law, which prohibits registration for political opinion or trade union action”.

Sophie Chapelle, a journalist in Bastamag, is worried about ten years of regression vis-a-vis the right to protest, with a new security law every two years: “The 2013 military planning law, which extends the possibility of beyond judicial control, the Intelligence Act 2015, the 2016 Organized Crime Act, which incorporates measures of a state of emergency, and the 2017 Homeland Security and Terrorism Act, which allows for setting up protective perimeters with systematic searches”. “The Anti-Protesters law was passed on March 12th; new mobilisations took place on the 16th, and on the 18th, the Prime Minister, Édouard Philippe, made only security declarations and announced a reinforcement of the maintenance of the order,” she deplored.

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Assa Traoré, whose brother died in July 2016 on the floor of the gendarmerie of Persan (Val-d’Oise), blasted an “undemocratic state, repressive, violent, a war machine that has neither remorse nor misgiving, where all blows are allowed”. “The authorities are violent, mutilate, and continue to kill. But we can reverse this war machine together,” she said.

What now can be done, beyond the ever-essential information about the growing brutality of the state, and while, as Edwy Plenel recalled, “the right to protest is a fundamental right”? The idea of ​​a National Coordination against repression was proposed.

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