French police under fire as ‘yellow vests’ casualty toll mounts

Several incidents of officers being attacked by protesters have led to a hardening of the battle lines. (Reuters)
Updated 18 January 2019

French police under fire as ‘yellow vests’ casualty toll mounts

  • The leftwing Liberation daily counted 77 people with serious head injuries, 71 caused by rubber bullets and others by stun grenades
  • In one incident that caused widespread outrage, a volunteer fireman and father of three suffered a stroke on January 10 after being hit in the head in Bordeaux, apparently by a rubber bullet

PARIS: Twenty years ago Jean-Marc Michaud was a paratrooper who proudly marched with the army down the Champs-Elysees avenue in Paris on France’s national holiday.
But these days, the 41-year-old former French soldier, who lost an eye to a rubber bullet during a “yellow vest” protest in Bordeaux last weekend, is “no longer proud of France at all,” he told AFP.
Michaud is one of dozens of protesters who have been seriously injured in clashes with police, whose sometimes heavy-handed tactics, particularly their use of 40-mm (1.6-inch) rubber projectiles and stun grenades, have drawn mounting criticism.
The “yellow vest” protests that erupted last year over fuel taxes have broadened into weekly demonstrations across France against President Emmanuel Macron, sometimes spiralling into violent clashes with police.
The “Disarm” collective, a local group that campaigns against police violence, has documented 98 cases of serious injuries since the first nationwide protests on November 17, including 15 cases of people losing an eye.
The leftwing Liberation daily counted 77 people with serious head injuries, 71 caused by rubber bullets and others by stun grenades.
In one incident that caused widespread outrage, a volunteer fireman and father of three suffered a stroke on January 10 after being hit in the head in Bordeaux, apparently by a rubber bullet.
Video footage of the incident, which was widely shared on social media, showed an officer firing at a group of retreating protesters, his rifle aimed at head level.
The footage then showed Olivier Beziade lying face down on the ground a few meters away, his back to the police. A rubber bullet was found at his feet.
“He was less than 10 meters away and they shot him in the head, there is no way that can be a mistake,” his wife Cindy told AFP.
Last week, a 15-year-old was hit in the face in the eastern city of Strasbourg, also apparently by a rubber bullet. A video showed the shocked teen pressing a cloth to his bloodied cheek.
France’s official police oversight body has received over 200 reports of police violence, though it has not given a breakdown of the cases.
The mounting list of injured has led to heightened scrutiny of police crowd-control techniques, long seen by some experts as aggravating tensions between the state and citizens in a country with a culture of violent protests.
On Thursday, France’s human rights ombudsman Jacques Toubon called for a suspension on the use of the so-called defense ball launchers (LBDs) that shoot the rubber rounds — a call echoed by Olivier Fillieule, a researcher on security at Lausanne University in Switzerland.
“France is about the only country, apart from two German states and Spain’s Guardia Civil, that uses LBDs in policing, with the terrible consequences we see which are unacceptable in a democracy,” Fillieule told AFP, calling it “a weapon of war if used at point-blank range.”
The police and government have defended the use of rubber bullets.
“We’re being attacked with glass bottles, cinder blocks, acid and bolts. An LBD is the weapon that scares people. If they took them away from us, no officer will want to work during the protests,” a police source told AFP.
Several incidents of officers being attacked by protesters have led to a hardening of the battle lines.
In one of most serious incidents, three officers on motorcycles had to make a hasty getaway after being pelted with electric scooters, paving stones and other objects on the Champs-Elysees on December 22.
One officer was knocked over with his bike, prompting another officer to briefly draw and point his gun at their attackers before retreating.
Under their rules of engagement, officers are allowed use rubber bullets “only in cases of absolute necessity,” where they are “strictly proportional” to the situation, are fired at least 10 meters from their target and aimed below the neck.
But the large number of head injuries among protesters suggests the rules are not always followed, fueling the vitriol of the yellow vests who are frequently heard shouting “CRS collabos” (riot police are collaborators).
Interior Minister Christophe Castaner this week brushed aside criticism of the force.
“I have never seen a policeman or gendarme attacking a protester,” he declared, despite a police captain being caught on camera on January 4 chasing and beating protesters in the southern city of Toulon.
But national police chief Eric Morvan, in a note to the troops this week, reminded them that the use of rubber bullets had to be proportional and could “only target the torso and lower limbs.”


Lampedusa mayor slams Rome over migrant boat standoff

Updated 22 August 2019

Lampedusa mayor slams Rome over migrant boat standoff

  • “The island no longer exists politically. It is just exploited in political clashes in Rome.”

LAMPEDUSA, Italy: The mayor of Italy’s Lampedusa island on Thursday denounced the collapsing government for its failure to deal with migrant rescue boats, as a ship carrying 356 people remained stranded in the Mediterranean.
Mayor Salvatore Martello said the reception center on the tiny isle was already over capacity and would struggle to house migrants currently stuck aboard the Norwegian-flagged Ocean Viking.
The vessel, run by charities Doctors Without Borders and SOS Mediterranee, has sought a port for almost two weeks after rescuing four boats of migrants off the Libyan coast between 9 and 12 August.
“It would be difficult because the reception center is saturated,” Martello told AFP.
“The island no longer exists politically. It is just exploited in political clashes in Rome.”
Lampedusa has long been a magnet for African migrants fleeing poverty and conflict.
Thousands have attempted to make the unsafe crossing from Libya in a bid to reach Europe this year, despite efforts to deter them.
Italy’s far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has been accused of demonizing migrants and leaving them to drown in the sea.
He has repeatedly insisted that rescued migrants can only land in Italy if other EU countries take them in.
Italy’s president on Thursday was holding a second day of talks after the disintegration of the anti-immigrant coalition government, which broke down after the resignation of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte on Tuesday.
The plight of the migrants aboard the Ocean Viking, which was denied entry by both Italy and Malta, is the latest in a string of migrant boat standoffs with Italian authorities.
The Open Arms rescue ship was allowed to land in Lampedusa on Wednesday, with 83 migrants disembarking, after Italian justice ordered they be brought ashore.
Many of them had spent 19 days on board the ship after being picked up while in difficulty in waters off Libya.
There were initially 147 mainly African migrants on the ship but all minors and some suffering health problems had already disembarked.
A European deal to redistribute them has yet to be implemented.