Emmanuel Macron’s Year of Cracking Heads

France’s past year offers a possible preview of the West's future: growing protests against liberalism—and growing brutality against the protests.

French President Emmanuel Macron and French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner take part in a ceremony at The Prefecture de Police de Paris (Paris Police Headquarters) in Paris on Oct. 8, held to pay respects to the victims of an attack at the prefecture.
French President Emmanuel Macron and French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner take part in a ceremony at The Prefecture de Police de Paris (Paris Police Headquarters) in Paris on Oct. 8, held to pay respects to the victims of an attack at the prefecture. LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP via Getty Images

Patrice Philippe cannot shake off a “feeling of injustice” since he lost his right eye to a police weapon at the first ever protest he attended, on Dec. 8, 2018. “That day, my life took a 180-degree turn,” he told Foreign Policy. “As a hauler, without my eye, I automatically lost my license, my job, my source of income. Then my partner left.” As the yellow vest movement marks its first year of existence, Philippe remains unable to work, or move on: “I feel like I can’t start over.”

The 49-year-old truck driver had come to Paris from Lons, in southwestern France, to march with the yellow vest movement, a spontaneous social revolt that had started a month earlier in opposition to French President Emmanuel Macron’s policies, which protesters say favor only the rich. Philippe was walking towards the exit of the march, which he recalls had turned “violent,” when his eye was hit with a rubber bullet fired from an LBD 40 gun, a “weapon of intermediate force” frequently used by the French police in law enforcement operations. It is forbidden in France to aim at someone’s head or genitals with such a gun. Its use is banned in Austria, Ireland, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and the U.K., and authorized in only two out of Germany’s 16 states.

Since November 2018, such bullets have been regularly used by the French police alongside GLI-F4 grenades (each of which contains 25 grams of TNT) and tear gas. These weapons have caused a staggering number of life-altering or serious injuries among protesters such as Philippe. As of November 2019, 315 people have been injured in the head, resulting for some in a fractured skull or jaw; 25 have lost an eye; five have lost a hand; and one woman died of injuries caused by a grenade, according to French journalist David Dufresne, who has kept a meticulous count of injuries for news website Mediapart. A third of the eye injuries caused by police weapons in France in the last 20 years have happened during yellow vest protests, Dufresne estimates. The French government has said that LBD guns are “at no time” used against protesters “if they do not commit physical violence.”

Over its year of existence, the yellow vest movement—which sparked from refusal of a new tax on fuel—has shed light on the financial struggle of a portion of the French population and initiated a turn in Macron’s presidency, who until November 2018 had never faced serious political opposition to his neoliberal policies. But it has also highlighted the excesses of French policing, as documented occurrences of police brutality exploded. The “unprecedented violence” among the armed forces marks a “doctrinal change” in French policing, which has traditionally been based on avoiding confrontation, Arnaud Houte, a historian of the French police, told Foreign Policy. The law enforcement tactics have been accompanied by a broader shift in political culture under Macron, whose government has been markedly outspoken in support of law enforcement and military forces. Critics argue the state’s unconditional approval of the French police has granted them virtual impunity.

The changes in French law enforcement overseen by Macron have impeded rights of assembly that Europeans have long taken for granted. At almost any protest in France now, clouds of tear gas and LBD gunshots or grenade explosions are everywhere, and protesters say the prospect of losing an eye scares people away from marching. Nevertheless, ever greater numbers of citizens are finding reason to object to the economic status quo—apart from the yellow vests, teachers, farmers, lawyers, students, and hospital staff all have marched recently to protest their own working and living conditions. Macron’s policing policy may presage developments in neighboring countries; in Spain and Germany, liberal parties have increasingly focused on law and order in response to the Catalan independence movement and mass migration, respectively. France’s brand of liberalism, however, has taken an especially repressive turn.

The yellow vests erupted out of the nowhere in November 2018, when people from rural and peripheral towns across France marched in opposition to a new fuel tax introduced by the government, which many saw as the last straw in a series of economically regressive policies that ever more stretched their monthly budget. Every Saturday, they blocked roads and roundabouts and held protests in city centers. At its peak, more than 200,000 people were marching across France. Although their numbers have dwindled since the spring, their anniversary march in Paris on Nov. 16 was the yellow vests’ 53rd consecutive weekly protest.

For the police, the yellow vest movement represented the threat of chaos. “Protests used to be authorized, followed a set path. But these were protesters who came to vandalize and fight with the police,” Richard Lizurey, who retired as head of the National Gendarmerie force on Nov. 1, told Foreign Policy. Lizurey, like all in the armed forces and protesters’ ranks alike, speak of December 2018 as a “climactic moment.” On Dec. 1 and 8, the third and fourth marches respectively, yellow vests clashed with police on Paris’ famous Champs-Élysées. On this avenue honoring France’s unity, protesters caused material damage worth millions, writing “The yellow vests will triumph” on the Arc de Triomphe and later ransacking the luxury restaurant Fouquet’s. Police responded with tear gas, LBD guns and grenades, injuring thousands—some for life.

Philippe is the spokesperson for a group called Mutilés Pour l’Exemple (Mutilated as an Example) which accuses the French authorities of police brutality. “We want the state to recognize what they have done,” he said. “They have injured protesters in the flesh. We were injured by the French state.”

Authorities at the government and police level have condemned protesters for causing important material damage, but have shied away from acknowledging their own faults, including their responsibility in life-altering injuries. “Don’t speak of ‘repression’ or ‘police violence,’ these words are unacceptable under the rule of law,” Macron said in March. In August, he said that no “irreparable violence” had been committed—seemingly forgetting those who had lost a limb. Prime Minister Édouard Philippe has described the protesters as “thugs” and “extremists,” and Interior Minister Christophe Castaner has repeatedly denied wrongdoing on the police’s side.

A month after Philippe and others lost an eye, Castaner said that he knew of “no police officer who had attacked yellow vests.” The armed forces “are allowed to use force when it is necessary, and always in a proportionate manner,” Castaner said. For the authorities, the question of violence was one of legitimacy: “The violence of the armed forces is legitimated by the law and the state. The violence of the protesters was illegitimate,” Lizurey, the former head of police, told Foreign Policy.

Thierry Tintoni, a former police officer who now works for a police union, disagrees. “There was a lot of illegitimate violence on the police’s side,” he said. “How can we compare a ransacked restaurant and a blinded eye?” Macron’s and Castaner’s speeches “gave free rein to the armed forces and justified all their actions,” Tintoni said. “Never mentioning the injured protesters amounts to denying they exist. And to the police, it sends the message that they did nothing wrong, and can continue.”

The French police has a history of this kind of violence in the specific context of the Paris suburbs, or banlieues, where police “blunders” have killed youths such as teenagers Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, who died electrocuted in a power station where they had hidden to escape a police stop-and-search in Clichy-sous-Bois in 2005. Their deaths led to weeks of unrest in the banlieues denouncing policing excesses and police brutality. Until recently, the armed forces’ aggressive techniques had remained contained to the banlieues, Arié Alimi, a lawyer who has defended injured yellow vest protesters, told Foreign Policy. This disproportionate use of force, he said, became more widely visible in recent years “when the police violence started to affect white protesters and political activists from the French working or middle classes,” and has turned “systemic” since the yellow vest movement.

Macron, a former banker who skyrocketed to power in May 2017 after serving as former President François Hollande’s minister of the economy, destroying the French political establishment in the process, campaigned on a platform to make France more attractive abroad. Then seen as socially left-wing and economically right-wing, Macron has so far mostly given priority to market-friendly measures. One of his first decisions as president was to abolish the wealth tax, which won him the nickname of “president of the rich.” In two years, he has liberalized French labor law and reformed the country’s unemployment benefits and tax systems, and he is about to launch a controversial redesign of the country’s retirement framework, which according to experts will generally lower pensions.

Macron’s government’s support of the armed forces was not immediately apparent—he clashed with the army’s chief general within two months of his presidency, and support for Marine Le Pen, his far-right rival in the second round of the election, is high among the military and the police. But facing the yellow vests, France’s most significant social movement since the protests of May 1968, Macron suddenly found himself in need of the force’s backing. In his New Year’s address, the president condemned the “hateful crowd” of the protesters, pledging that “the rule of law will be guaranteed without indulgence.” He has regularly praised the “professionalism” and the “courage” of law enforcement officers. December 2018, the peak of violence in yellow vest protests, marked a clear shift in Macron’s support, which he has maintained since, offering bonuses to on-duty officers during protests and calling for a revamp of law enforcement methods to “rethink” and “relegitimate” the role of the police.

In August, Russian President Vladimir Putin compared the French police’s actions against the yellow vests to the massive arrests of political opponents in Moscow. An irritated Macron replied: “France always respected the rights of the Council of Europe, as well as its own Constitution.”

“Symbolically, France is the country of human rights,” said Élie Lambert, a representative for the Solidaires union who was part of the team from French civil society that met with the United Nations ahead of the international body’s warning on the use of LBDs. “But repression has risen, against the protesters and against unions too. Gaping cracks have opened, shattering the legitimacy of the police and the justice system.”

After every weekly march, videos, photos and testimonies of new injuries have appeared online. Many brought proof that contradicted the authorities’ main line of defense: that the police only responded with violence to protesters who had preemptively been violent. In January, a prominent yellow vest figure was blinded in the eye by an LBD gun shot at him as he livestreamed the march on Facebook. By February, it had emerged that many among the injured were not even taking part in a march when they were targeted by police weapons: A teenager suffered serious injuries to his jaw by an LBD while out shopping in Strasbourg, and an elderly woman in Marseilles had died following injuries from a grenade that had landed in her flat as she closed her blinds. In March, a 73-year-old got her skull fractured in a police charge in Nice (political and police authorities denied responsibility until a report proved they were at fault). Lambert recalls a protest in Dijon, in eastern France, in which the police charged on marchers near a railroad: “They had no other choice but to cross the railroad, where trains were in use! There were families, old people in this protest. Pushing them towards the railroad was very dangerous.”

As this violent climate progressed, it spread to other social movements and democratic institutions, too: Panic ensued after the police trapped participants of the unions’ traditional May Day march in a “hoop net”; peaceful climate activists were doused with tear gas; journalists were arrested under suspicion of political activism and had their phones confiscated to review their sources. It culminated with the tragic death of Steve Maia Caniço in Nantes on June 22. The 24-year-old had been attending a concert held on the banks of the Loire River for France’s Music Day. When the police showered the crowd with tear gas to force them to evacuate at 4 a.m., 14 fell into the water. Caniço, who couldn’t swim, drowned. To Houte, the historian, this marked a breaking point: “Five or ten years ago, cases like Steve’s death or Zineb’s [the woman from Marseilles] would have caused the collapse of the interior minister. But nothing happened.”

By the time Steve’s body was recovered from the river in July, months of documented cases of police brutality had fed the protesters’ distrust of the authorities. In yellow vests protests, which had greatly shrunk in size, Caniço’s name became shorthand for the victims of indiscriminate police violence. The “police of the police,” the Inspection Générale de la Police Nationale (IGPN), issued a report on Caniço’s death that cleared the armed forces from any responsibility. To Alimi, the lawyer who represents yellow vests, the IGPN “protects” the police and “covers up” cases when needed: “At least 54 cases of documented police violence, with video proof, have been dismissed. The IGPN does the police’s dirty laundry on an industrial scale.” Alimi cited 12 cases in which “there was proof of violence by LBD, grenade, or baton, but the officer could not be identified.” “The police have rules: Weapons are registered, their use reported precisely, officers must wear identification numbers at all times, and there are surveillance cameras everywhere in Paris. So it is very troubling to be told that an officer cannot be identified.”

Over three decades of police experience, Tintoni said he learned that the IGPN “does what it’s been told to do”: “They can easily clear someone by claiming their investigation was fruitless. For example, if told that one case must remain unsolved, they will wait until after the one-month delay to request a surveillance video, by which time it’ll have been erased.” Several complaints filed by Mutilated as an Example, Philippe’s group of blinded victims, were dismissed when surveillance camera footage was found to be unusable.

In June, Brigitte Jullien, head of the IGPN, told the newspaper Le Parisien that no officer has been convicted in cases of injuries because “no investigation has allowed us to conclude that a police officer’s responsibility was engaged on an individual level.” She also said she “totally refutes the term of police violence.” Lizurey, the former National Gendarmerie general, used the same phrasing when speaking to Foreign Policy: “I refute the term of police violence. Accusing the IGPN of partiality is a serious accusation.” Tintoni disagreed: “The IGPN is police investigating the police. Of course it protects its institution. It should be abolished.”

After the violence exercised by the armed forces and the political rhetoric that followed came “discriminatory justice,” according to Alimi. While yellow vests protesters have been quickly convicted for material damages, authors of police brutality remain free because IGPN investigations couldn’t identify them. Out of 212 investigations opened by the IGPN into police action during yellow vests protests, 72 are still being investigated and 146 are closed, including 54 dismissed for lack of proof, the Paris prosecutor said in November. Two cases of alleged violence from the police will be judged in criminal court and 18 are being examined by magistrates. Meanwhile, 10,000 protesters have been held in custody, and out of 3,100 convicted, 400 have been sent to jail, according to a provisional legal report from November. “Hundreds of yellow vests have already been jailed and thousands convicted while police officers have yet to be heard in court for the first time,” Dufresne, the journalist who kept count of protester injuries, has said. “I am deeply worried,” the lawyer Alimi told Foreign Policy. “The French justice does not respect the principle of equality.”

A poll conducted in August 2019, after Caniço’s body was discovered, found that 50 percent of the French trust the police—a three-point gain since 2015, the year of the Paris attacks, which have remained durably engraved in the French collective memory. The police were then seen as protectors against terrorism, which might explain why their public approval appears to hold despite their lack of accountability. But for those who attended a protest over the past year, this image is long gone. Such a discrepancy risks feeding the wider political problem of distrust in the state and its political elites, which was one of the yellow vests’ rallying cries to begin with.

On Nov. 16, 28,000 marched across France to mark the movement’s one-year anniversary. “To have lasted a year in front of such repression is a victory,” Philippe said. “But many have stopped coming to the weekly marches because they are afraid. The police, the government, have succeeded in scaring us off.” Injuries keep coming, too. On Nov. 16, a yellow vest who was chatting with others during the Paris march was hit in the eye by a tear gas grenade. He has since lost his eye. The video of his injury went viral with this comment: “We imagine that the IGPN will not be able to identify the shooter and that the case will be dismissed…”

The yellow vests movement, struggling to draw last year’s numbers, is unlikely to regain traction. But other social movements are organizing to protest Macron’s reforms of the pension and benefits systems. French unions have called for an “unlimited strike” starting Dec. 5, promising to immobilize France with planned strikes on the train and metro networks, roads, and airports. Students, who are condemning the government’s inaction over rising poverty, have said they will join in. “Warning lights are flashing everywhere,” Lambert, the union representative, said. “It’s going to be big.”

Philippe, the blinded yellow vest, said: “Everyone is starting to see that the government doesn’t defend the people’s interests but only their own. They have shown that there is no possible dialogue.” The pension reforms include special provisions for the armed forces, the government has announced. “They are the biggest winners of the yellow vests crisis,” Lambert said. “Because the government can’t manage without them.”

Pauline Bock is a French journalist based in Brussels.

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