While images of Yellow Vest protesters injured by police shocked France this week, Assa Traoré, whose brother died in the back of a police van outside Paris in 2016, was unsurprised.
“When you lift the curtain, what happens in France is exactly what you see in America,” Traoré said in a phone interview, alluding to the deaths that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement. “It’s the same violence. We’re also dying.”
Traoré formed La Vérité Pour Adama (Truth for Adama) and became a spokesperson for the protests that followed her brother’s death, which drew a few thousand people to the streets but achieved little change. But this week, France is beginning to have a widespread debate about police brutality, thanks to the growing number of accounts from people injured during the Yellow Vest protests circulating on social media. Finally, Traoré said, the rest of France is beginning to see the kind of violence that people in the country’s immigrant-heavy suburbs experience on a regular basis.
“I was shocked by the kid who has a hole in his face, by the grandma who died, by the grenades,” Traoré said, referring to people who said they were injured by police during recent Yellow Vest protests. “We’ve known [about police violence] for 40 years. The difference is that we, in the suburbs, die because of it.”
The first Yellow Vest protests late last year, which began as a kind of populist uprising among the mostly white working class from France’s smaller cities, ended with riots that left windows shattered in Paris’s most famous upscale shopping district. But these protests kept widespread public support despite the violence — and some nationalist and anti-Semitic sentiments from protesters — and President Emmanuel Macron was eventually forced to strike a conciliatory tone. He reversed the gas tax that sparked the first protests and has just launched a “national debate” that includes stops across the country for French people to air their grievances.
But the debate has been upstaged this week by the growing number reports of brutal police tactics that critics say have also injured bystanders who weren’t even involved in the protests, which are still being held each weekend. Last weekend, for example, a protester in Bordeaux was put in a coma after sustaining a head injury, and a police officer beating immobilized protesters in Toulon.
The inspector general for the French police has referred 78 incidents for investigation. But the actual number of people injured by police is much higher, said David Dufresne, an independent journalist who has been publicizing reports of police violence through his Twitter account. He’s counted more than 300 incidents that people have reported on social media and believes this is just the tip of the iceberg.
“I’m constantly astounded by the sheer number of incidents and to see that the police’s code of ethics is being shattered every Saturday,” Dufresne told BuzzFeed News. “It is massive and repetitive. We’re seeing things that are forbidden.”
Much of the allegations of police brutality center around the use of a weapon known as an LBD (lanceur de balle de défense), which shoots a kind of rubber bullet. (They’re also commonly called “flashballs,” though that’s technically the forerunner to the LBD.) These are not widely used in other parts of northern and central Europe, and the government official dedicated to protecting civil liberties, Defender of Rights Jacques Toubon, has repeatedly called for the LBD to be banned.
But French police continue to use it to control Yellow Vest protests. Amnesty International’s Nicolas Krameyer told BuzzFeed News they’ve documented 13 cases in which people have lost eyes in confrontations with police since protests began, and four in which people lost a hand. He said police have gotten violent even in confrontations with nonviolent protesters, and also appear to be arresting people far too often. Eighty percent of the 5,600 people arrested since the protests began were released without charges, he said.
But officials in charge of the police have resisted calls to make major changes to tactics.
The head of the French National Police, Eric Morvan, did remind officers this week that they should only shoot protesters with LBDs in the torso and the limbs (he did not concede that anyone had been aiming for their heads), but his boss, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner, told reporters Monday, “I do not know any policeman or gendarme who attacked a protester. ... On the other hand, I have seen protesters systematically attacking our security forces and journalists.”
(The French police and the head of the police union Unité Syndicat Général de la Police-Police Force Ouvrière did not respond or declined to comment for this story.)
Protesters have accused police of brutality since early December, but it is only over the past two weeks that media attention shifted from the rioting that occurs at some Yellow Vest protests to the tactics of the police themselves. Dufresne said the conversation is shifting because protesters have learned to use their phones to publicize incidents that would ordinarily be swept under the rug.
“It is very similar to what happened with Black Lives Matter — people are documenting what is happening,” Dufresne said. “I’m noticing that police forces are becoming more and more nervous towards cameras, whether they are from the media or not.”
Christian Mouhanna, director of the government-sponsored Center for Sociological Research on Law and Criminal Justice Institutions, told BuzzFeed News that the French police have long used LBDs as a kind of punishment in immigrant suburbs.
“What’s new is not [the actions] of police officers, but using this kind of aggressive actions against … white people from middle classes,” Mouhanna said. “I’ve seen a lot of people from this yellow jackets, and they are saying, ‘We are discovering police violence’ … middle-class white citizens are discovering that police can be rude, aggressive, and so on.”
Mouhanna said French police once were very good at managing protests, but a policy set at the highest levels of government to take a hardline approach to crowd control has made French protests increasingly violent in recent years.
“I think many police officers don’t want to [blind] demonstrators, but they don’t have any right to negotiate with these people,” he said. They are given orders to use whatever methods are necessary to keep demonstrators within certain boundaries, and even have the right to use lethal force.
“They were very good in managing demonstrators before, but now they have taken the bad habits of the French patrols [in the suburbs] not good at building the links of the citizens,” he said.
This should be one issue that unites the immigrant suburbs and the struggling white middle class, which are more commonly seen as the core of the movement, said Truth for Adama’s Traoré. She endorsed the protests early on, and said the nationalist and anti-Semitic currents in the movement are “a minority trying to hijack the movement.”
“Actually, the suburbs have been Yellow Vests for many years now. Who knows more than us about unemployment, about poverty?” she said. “We are all fighting a system. A system of repressive police and justice, and our president who is in total denial.”