Since late 2018, in France repeated demonstrations brought to the streets tens of thousands people, some reaching peaks of over a million people protesting across the country. They were part of mobilisions on social issues, mostly with the Gilets Jaunes movement and now against a systemic reform of the pension system.
The response of authorities repeatedly included a disproportionate use of force. The number of people severely wounded by police weapons has reached levels unknown in the country since demonstrations of Algerians during their fight for independence between 1954 and 1962. Since 2018, 25 persons have lost one eye, 5 one hand.
The reason for this is the systematic use of two weapons, the LBD 40 – a successor of the Flash Ball – and the explosive grenades GLI-F4, that are not part of the arsenal at disposal of the police during demonstrations in most European countries.
Human rights organisations and associations of lawyers have repeatedly asked for the withdrawal of these weapons from the arsenal of police officers. In vain. Even administrative courts failed to rule for the suspension of their use.
At the beginning of January, police violence raised viral public outcry after Eric Chouviat died during a routine identity check in the context of prone restraint on 9 January 2020. Several videos were disseminated by witnesses. Prone restraint is a technic used by the police in France despite being forbidden in most European countries, in which the targeted person is held face down on the floor with police officers on their back. For years, the use of this practice has been regularly denounced due to the death of several victims in various circumstances.
Following the incident, for the first time, the Minister of Interior and the President of the French Republic publically questioned the deontology of police officers involved. In previous instances, public officials had always opinioned the behaviours of police officers to be legitimate.
Then, at the end of January, the Minister of Interior announced that the GLI-F4 grenades will be withdrawn from the arsenal used during demonstrations. Many close observers have called out the decision as ‘hypocritical’ as it is well documented that the stock of those ammunitions is nearly depleted. It has also been noticed that the grenades that will replace them have also been denounced as very dangerous to be usedduring demonstrations.
While the declarations of the President and the Minister of Interiors did not question the actions of the institution itself, but behaviours of individual police officers, it is worth noticing in both cases the change in the official discourse.
Many progressive civic activists are doubtful whether there will be a real change in policing practises in the context of peaceful demonstrations. Nevertheless, the fact that such declarations have been made and such a decision announced is a sign of recognition by officials at the highest political level that there is a problem with the behaviour of police forces in France, as denounced repeatedly by civil society actors.