Excessive police force against "Yellow Vest" protesters threatens freedom of assembly

Peaceful assembly

French police has been criticised by human rights organisations for using excessive force and heavy-handed crowd control and anti-riot tactics during “Gilets Jaunes” (Yellow Vest) mass protests that have been ongoing since mid-November 2018 in Paris and other big cities. Although some of the police tactics may have been justified for deterring violent demonstrators, at times police has resorted to use of force in a “disproportionate and unnecessary manner” against peaceful protesters, causing physical harm and serious injuries to hundreds of peaceful demonstrators, including high-school students and journalists (see expression section below), Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International’s research found. 

Background information on Yellow Vest protests

The Gilets Jaunes or “Yellow Vest” movement has been carrying out regular mass demonstrations across the country since 17th November 2018. It started as a grassroot social movement, mobilised as an opposition to the government’s tax policy and to protest socioeconomic inequality, but soon snowballed to a wider movement against the ruling political class with some calling for resignation of the President Emmanuel Macron. (See here an Euronews documentary about France's 'gilets jaunes' movement).

Although the protests remained mainly peaceful, there have been reports of violence by members of the Yellow Vest movement such as clashes with riot police, and reports of homophobic incidents as well as destruction of banks, public and private properties, and burning of cars. Additionally, there have been numerous reported threats against MPs, attributed to Yellow Vest members, including death threats and threats of sexual assault, racist and homophobic messages, targeting at least 50 MPs of the President Macron’s party La République en Marche (LREM), according to media and the President of the LREM in the National Assembly.

Police use of excessive force inflict serious injuries on protesters  

According to official figures, reported by media, around 1,900 protesters and 1,200 police personnel have been injured in less than three months of the Yellow Vest protests (as of 30th January 2019). Among the injured there are children and journalists (see below). The Ligue des droits de l’homme (LDH), the French League of Human Rights, claimed that as a result of “violent policing” during the Yellow Vest protests, many of the injured women and men were “disabled for life, blinded, hands torn off, with injuries on the stomach or face, with irreparable consequences.” The LDH accused the police of using excessive force, disproportionate devices, indiscriminate gassing and bludgeoning of protesters.

“By continuing to use particularly dangerous weapons in events causing irreversible damage, the state violates fundamental freedoms such as the right to protest and the right to life.”, stated in a joint communique the French League of Human Rights and the France's trade union CGT and its Paris brunch L'UD CGT. (Translated from French)

Source of most serious injuries have been attributed to the inappropriate use by police of controversial non-lethal weapons such as rubber bullets (Defense Ball Launchers - LBDs) also called flash balls; instant tear gas grenades that contain small explosive charge (GLI-F4); and sting-ball grenades - as documented by international human rights organisations, such as AI, HRW, local activists and victims accounts and videos shared through social media.

As of 9th February 2019, an estimated 141 protesters have been seriously injured, including bone fractures, total or partial loss of limb, according to an activist site Desarmons Les, which records cases of police violence during the Yellow Vest movement. According to these recordsat least 20 protesters have lost their eye, 5 people had their hands torn off (by grenades GLI F4), and many received head injuries. Majority of the documented serious injuries, (100 out of the total 141) have been caused allegedly by so called Flash Ball riot guns (LBD40).

Authorities disputed these figures, as the Interior Ministry reportedly found four cases of protesters suffering serious eye injuries as a result of 101 internal investigations. Additionally, the Interior Minister rejected claims that police made disproportionate use of force.

Police violence against high school students protesters

Heavy-handed policing tactics, condemned by HRW and AI, for being unjustified and disproportionate, have been also used against high school students taking part in unrelated protests outside high schools in December 2018. Most of the student’s demonstrations have been peaceful, but some have involved violence and damage to property. Riot police have used tear gas and rubber projectiles against peaceful student demonstrators, and in situations that did not pose a direct threat to police forces, HRW documented.

  • 17-year-old student, was wounded in the face by allegedly targeted flash ball shot, in front of Simone de Beauvoir high school in Garges-lès-Gonesse on 5th December 2018. Teachers witnessing the event told HRW that at the time of the incident the student was not doing anything harmful or posing a threat to police.

Further violations against students protesters include mass arrest of students, holding them in conditions that may amount to cruel and degrading treatment, and violation of their rights of due process. 

  • On 6th December 2018, 163 children, some as young as 13, were arrested, following clashes between police and students of Saint-Exupery high school in Paris. A footage show students forced to kneel with their hands either behind their heads or handcuffed behind their backs. The lawyer representing several of the children told AI that “some were kept in this position for up to four hours”. AI condemned the police action and said that if confirmed, this "would amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment".
  • Some of the detained children have not been given food or seen by a doctor before they were questioned, and have been denied immediate access to a lawyer, AI found

Civil society demand prohibition of "non-lethal" weapons in policing assemblies 

Concerned with the increasing number of serious harm inflicted on protesters as a result of the law enforcement use of flash ball (LBD40) during the protests, human rights organisations and doctors, demanded immediate prohibition of this controversial weapon arguing these weapons are unfit for use at assemblies. Victims’ lawyers also urged the government to ban the use of explosive grenades GLI-F4 in law enforcement policing, arguing that they already caused several serious injuries, including “a hand or a foot torn off by the effect of blast”.

On 1st February 2019, the Conseil d’Etat (State Council), France’s highest administrative court, rejected a petition calling for the prohibition or suspension of LBDs in the protests, filed by the France’s Human Rights League and CGT trade union. Although recognising the serious injuries inflicted by the use of LBDs, the Court allowed the continuous use of these weapons for policing assemblies, stating they were “necessary” and “appropriate” in dealing with violent protests, subject to strict compliance with the conditions of use. On 6th February 2019, the France's Human Rights League appealed the decision of the Conseil d’Etat (State Council), and filed a priority question of constitutionality criticising the "insufficiency and inadequacy" of the current legal framework for the use of the law enforcement  agencies of weapons such as LBDs during demonstrations.

As a response to the criticism, on 22nd January 2019, the Minister of Interior announced that riot police officers using rubber bullet (LBDs) would be equipped with body cameras to record the use of these weapons, a measure that has not been sufficient.

The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Mijatović, after completing a visit to France on 28th January 2019 to discuss human rights concerns related to the Yellow Vest protest, also expressed grave concerns over police violence against protesters including journalists and especially over the use of the defence ball launchers (LBDs).

Preventive arrests

Human rights organisations have criticised the government for taking indiscriminate and repressive actions against protesters. Since the beginning of the yellow vest movement in November 2018, more than 5,500 protesters have been arrested, some as a preventive measure before the rallies, as “thousands” of them are in police custody and over a thousand with "severe convictions”, according to the French League of Human Rights on 18th January 2019. During a parliamentary debate on 12th February, the Prime Minister confirmed that in relation to the Yellow Vets protests,there have been 1,800 criminal convictions as another 1,400 protesters are awaiting sentencing.

Human rights organisations also reported police taking other preventive measures, such as conducting indiscriminate searches, including of people who did not necessarily present an imminent risk of violence. Amnesty International observed that during such searches: “Not only did people have their protective equipment confiscated, but in some cases it was used as a pretext for arrest.” For example, the Ministry of Interior confirmed that among the arrested 1,700 people from across the country on 8th December 2018, there were arrests of people who have carried protective objects such as masks and helmets that the authorities considered among the objects not suitable for peaceful protest.

However, the French Minister of Justice Nicole Belloubet claimed on a TV station that there were “no preventive arrests” at all during the protests.

Bill to prevent violence during demonstrations further threatens the freedom of peaceful assembly

On 5th February 2019, the lower house of parliament approved an anti-rioting bill that is giving greater powers to security forces. The bill is expected to go for voting in the upper house of parliament on 12th March.

As highlighted by Amnesty International, the bill contains some concerning provisions that would impose arbitrary restrictions on the right to protest peacefully:

  • Gives the authority to prefects to ban people deemed dangerous from attending protests, without a judicial oversight; the prohibition order is not for a specific event, but can be carried up to a month. The bill provides for a six-month prison sentence and a €7,500 ($8,500) fine for violators.
  • Punishes for concealing the face “without a legitimate reason”, with fines of €15,000 ($17,000) and a one-year imprisonment. This can lead to arbitrary arrests and discourage citizens to exercise their right to demonstrate peacefully, warned Amnesty International. 

The Human Rights Commissioner of the Council of Europe also raised concerns over the bill questioning the proportionality of the proposed measures saying they do not seem “necessary to guarantee the freedom of assembly effectively and may, on the contrary, be perceived as an obstacle to the exercise of this freedom." The High Commissioner called on the legislator to “guarantee the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.” 


Violence against journalists while covering the Yellow Vest protests

A number of journalists have been injured covering the Yellow Vest protests as some claimed they have been deliberately targeted by police. The journalists have been attacked by both sides - hit with rubber bullets by police and beaten up by protesters. Journalists descried consistently to media rights organisations of being targeted by riot police in the back, often by rubber bullets, despite wearing identifying press badges. Journalists unions sent a joint letter of complaint to authorities stating that many press photographers, clearly identified as such, had their personal protective equipment (helmets, goggles, gas mask) confiscated, sometimes under the threat of being taken into police custody. This has had the effect of preventing some reporters from doing their job. Journalists also said that they have been exposed to more danger by the confiscation of their protective equipment. 

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called on the Ombudsman to investigate reports of serious targeted police violence against journalists while they were covering the protests.

The Minister of Interior rejected that instructions have been sent to the police which would have had the effect of limiting the exercise of the freedom of the press and expressed commitment to investigate violations against journalists.

As also reported by media and the Reporters Without Borders, several attacks against journalists were also carried out by the protesters such as beatings, harassment and threats of journalists.

Reporters Without Borders Secretary-General Christophe Deloire called on the Yellow Vest spokespersons to condemn “increasing” violence against journalists and urged the authorities to respond:

"This is anti-democratic blackmail from people who consider they can beat up journalists if they disagree with the way events are covered.", said Reporters Without Borders Secretary-General Christophe Deloire. 

The Minister of Interior responded on Twitter that anyone attacking reporters will be brought to justice, saying further: "In our democracy, the press must be free... attacking journalists is attacking the right to inform."

In a separate development, on the night of 13th to 14th September 2018, eight activists of the association AttacFrance were arrested and kept under custody for sticking stickers on the windows of banks to protest against the "offshore companies created by the banks targeted by this action". More than 30 police officers and two magistrates were mobilised in a move the association described as an attempt to discourage people’s mobilisation on fiscal justice.

In September 2018, the Nationale de Sécurité du Médicament (National Agency for Drug Safety) refused to make public the marketing authorisation for the new Levothyrox formula manufactured by the pharmaceutical company Merck, which reportedly caused health issues. The National Agency for Drug Safety  invoked the “business secrecy law” that was adopted on 30th July 2018. As the CIVICUS Monitor reported, the law had been harshly criticised by CSOs, academia and most journalists' unions as a breach of freedom of expression and information. The collective of investigative journalists Informer n’est pas un délit (Informing Is Not a Crime) stated that this is an infringement of the right to be informed from a public agency. 

"This violation of the right to be informed does not come from a private group. It is the fact of a public agency. This is unacceptable!", Informer n’est pas un délit said in a statement on 28th September 2018. 

An online petition was launched against the application of business secrecy to public health issues, collecting over 45,000 signatures.