Article written for the Civic Space Watch by Alexia Ozeel, ECF.
In the past several months, France has experienced a wave of numerous protests and strikes. From the pension reform strikes to the recent protests against mega reservoirs in Sainte Soline, French activists and CSOs have mobilised to demonstrate their civic rights and freedoms across France.
However, this has led to an unprecedented and disproportionate level of extreme violence by the police against protesters.
On March 25th, the “Bassines Non Merci” collective, agricultural union ‘Confederation Paysanne’ and “Les Soulèvements de la Terre” environmental network organised a protest in Sainte-Soline, in the Deux-Sèvres department against the construction of “megabassines”, giant water reserve systems for agricultural irrigation. Aimed to help farmers irrigate their crops during periods of droughts, activists are against this claiming it’s a poor adaptation to climate change issues and can lead to the monopolisation of common water supplies, groundwater depletion, and modify local and regional climates.
This protest took place despite the prefecture of Deux-Sèvres on March 17th prohibiting any type of gathering on a specific perimeter and the carrying of weapons or ammunition and on March 21st, banning the circulation of agricultural machinery, due to potential public disorders following an earlier protest that had occurred in Sainte-Soline on October 29th, 2022.
The LDH, along with the ‘Confederation Paysanne’ and other associations, sent requests to the Administrative Court of Poitiers for the suspension of the orders mentioned above. The LDH also requested for observers on the field to “be able to continue to exercise their mission freely, even during the dispersal of a gathering“, giving them the same freedom as journalists, as ruled by the French Conseil d’État.
However, the decision of the Administrative Court of Poitiers only issued a rejection of the requests on March 24th, less than 24 hours before the demonstration was planned, giving associations or activists no chance or time to re-group or spread the court’s decision. This jurisdictrion also denied la Ligue des droits de l’Homme (LDH) observers the freedom to fully exercise their missions. Instead, they would be classified as any other protesters. Due to this decision, the LDH has launched legal action at the Administrative Court of Poitiers.
Despite this, environmental activists gathered in Sainte-Soline on March 25th against the installation of this reservoir to express the environmental risks with these types of systems.
L'eau est un bien commun que nous devons défendre. Nous rappelons notre opposition aux #mégabassines et à l'accaparement des ressources naturelles, dans le respect de nos valeurs fondamentales de non-violence pic.twitter.com/VuK1YuEniL
— Greenpeace France (@greenpeacefr) March 25, 2023
According to the organisers, 30,000 demonstrators were united between Melle et Saint-Soline for the same cause and 3,000 security forces were deployed on the scene. Officials have also reported several protesters belonging to radical groups, such as the black blocs, who have a history of using violent tactics during demonstrations which undermine the objective of environmental activists and non-violent protesters.
Violent police response to the protest
Whilst the demonstration reportedly started peacefully, a TV documentary produced by the French State channel France 2 shows that, unlike Mr. Darmanin initially claimed, violence started when police forces on quads targeted protesters who were about 1km away from the controversial “megabassine”. Despite the teargas fired at them, three separate convoys continued their way throughout the fields and were met with another round of teargas and GM2L grenades, at about 250m from police cordons. The documentary shows that the convoy hit was the one depicted as most peaceful, composed of families, according to police intel.
Quickly after that, a group of radical elements started throwing stones at police forces. Reports also mention at least two Molotov cocktails and a blowtorch, which probably set a couple of police cars on fire. In total, the clashes lasted for about 2 hours, during which observers of the LDH confirmed the heavy, disproportionate use of tear gas, including on protesters who were at reasonable distance from the clashes. Recordings also showed several direct shots from Cougar launchers, which can be lethal according to the National Law Enforcement Outline (Schema National du Maintien de l’Ordre).
- More than 5,000 tear gas grenades and GM2Ls (modular 2 tear gas grenades) were fired by officers.
- A total of 200 people were wounded, a figure which includes 47 officers. Several demonstrators were seriously injured by dispersal grenades, two of whom fell into a coma. One is now awake, but the other is still between life and death.
- Eleven people were detained by the police for possession of pétanque balls and meat knives.
It is important to stress that according to international human rights standards, authorities have a duty to facilitate the right to protest. In case of violent demonstrators, the police’s action should be aimed at removing those enacting violence in order to enable the protest to continue.
Legal observers from the LDH who were present in Sainte-Soline reported the police’s prohibition of rescue interventions by emergency services. A recording between three LDH lawyers and the emergency services reveals that they could not help a wounded person in a state of vital emergency since the police commanded not to intervene, despite observers on the field confirming that there had been no action for 30 minutes as the protests had stopped.
Philippe Astruc, Public Prosecutor of Rennes, announced in a press conference on April 4 that four investigations had been opened, after protesters were injured. Two of them concerned the protesters who fell in coma, on the charges of “attempted murder”.
LDH observers additionally confirmed that, despite claims by the Deux-Sèvres prefect, the police used a “disproportionate use of force against all those present, and this indiscriminately”. Another observer of police practices from Toulouse who was present in Sainte-Soline described “police pairs in quads quickly and massively resorting to GM2L grenades” and said that “it is truly unprecedented to use GM2L on this scale… In cities, when there are two or three explosions in one minute, it is already exceptional. There, I have videos where we hear one per second exploding”.
Members of the “Bassines Non Merci” collective have also called out the French government’s misinformation when reporting on the protests. During a press conference, Gérald Darmanin, the Minister of the Interior claimed that:
“Only tear gas canisters were fired. No weapon of war was used by the forces of order in Sainte-Soline, only intermediate weapons were used, on the other hand, weapons of war were used by certain thugs, I think in particular Molotov cocktails”.
A report by the gendarmerie nationale denounces the use of Molotov cocktails, firework mortars, and balls of steel by radical protesters against the police.
However, what the government failed to mention was the police’s generalised and overwhelming use of tear gas grenades, GM2Ls, sting ball grenades, and defence bullet launchers. According to sections in France’s internal security code, any type of grenade launcher used counts as “weapons belonging to war material”.
Au nom de la #LDH, @PBaudouinLDH rappelle que le dispositif à #SainteSoline a mis gravement en danger l’ensemble des personnes présentes sur place, occasionnant de très nombreuses blessures souvent graves allant même jusqu’à plusieurs urgences absolues. https://t.co/k0f99dTPUX
— LDH France (@LDH_Fr) March 28, 2023
Dissolution of the network Les Soulèvements de la Terre
This repression is embedded in the government’s controversial separatism bill and the Contrat d’Engagement Republicain (Republican Contract) which harms the freedom of association. Based on the law introduced in 2021, French associations are obliged to sign and respect the rules of the Republican contract by respecting the Republican principles of equality, liberty, laicity, and respect of the public order.
However, this legislation has been questioned by CSOs as it has mainly been used to not only limit the civic rights and activities of associations, but to increase the sanctioning powers given to administrative authorities and prefectures across France to dissolve associations.
Indeed, on the basis of the bill and under the guise of protecting public order, authorities have taken actions against organisations undertaking civil disobedience. These actions often consist of the symbolic violation of a rule to draw public attention to crucial issues and make the authorities face up to their responsibilities. It is important to note that international human rights law on the freedom of assembly and expression recognise that collective civil disobedience or direct-action campaigns can be covered by the right to peaceful assembly and expression, provided that they are non-violent.
On March 28th, Minister of the Interior Darmanin announced that he would initiate the dissolution of one of the initiators of the protest, the informal network “Les Soulèvements de la Terre”.
The collective has responded to the announcement, calling it a “villainous attempt by the Minister of the Interior to reduce attention on the deadly violence he unleashed against the protesters of Sainte-Soline” and expressing their concern for the “dissolution of a coalition that brings together dozens of local collectives, farms, union sections, NGOs across the country” which would therefore harm the activities and existence of numerous environmental CSOs and activists. Since the Minister’s announcement, a petition against the dissolution of the movement has collected over 70 000 signatures, and 2000 celebrities announced they would challenge the dissolution at the State Council.
Prosecution and criminalisation
Environmental activists against the mega reservoirs have recently been prosecuted by public authorities. Five activists who took part in the October 29th mobilisation last year in Sainte-Soline were sentenced to two to three months in prison and three years of exclusion from the territory of Deux-Sèvres. These defendants did not take part in the violence but were criminalised due to their “participation in a group with a view to committing damage or violence”. Prosecution rates by the authorities are expected to increase as the prefecture of Deux- Sèvres has asked for names of protesters to be denounced.
On March 26th, two people, one being a journalist, were taken into police custody after being stopped and found present at the protest thanks to the use of a new law enforcement tool, a coded marking product (PMD). This product is projected by a paintball-type rifle by the police and is invisible to the naked eye, odourless, and persistent on skin and clothing for several weeks. It can only be revealed using UV light and even if you are not hit directly, the product can be transferred onto you by other targeted protesters.
The purpose of this product is to facilitate the arrests of violent activists by tracing individuals identified as perpetrator of violence and marked from a distance, that could not be arrested immediately.
This weapon is being used as an experiment but is problematic for protesters. As the product is transferable, passive protesters risk being categorised as violent and risk being taken into custody, or even arrested. Moreover, there is a lack of transparency on the legality of this product or how it is regulated, which puts a risk on individual freedoms.
The LDH has voiced their concerns about the criminalisation and dissolution of social movements, and restrictions on the freedom to protest following the Sainte-Soline case.
In response to the violent and hostile political climate developing in France, Mediapart journal published an open letter to the government sent by a collective of French trade unions and associations calling for the government to stop silencing critical organisations with threats of dissolution. Additionally, the LDH has launched and spread a petition to stop dangerous tactics used by police forces during protests, especially by the BRAV-M riot police, which harm civic rights and human rights.
On April 5th, during a hearing at the Senate about the deployment of police forces in Sainte-Soline, Minister of the Interior Darmanin made public remarks questioning the public subsidies allocated to the LDH as it “deserves to be looked at as part of the actions that they have been carrying out”.
M @GDarmanin "les actions qui ont pu être menées" par la #LDH depuis + de 120ans sont la défense des droits & libertés de ttes et ts, ne vous en déplaise, en particulier la défense de la liberté de manifester mise à mal par votre pol de maintien de l'ordrehttps://t.co/qs9KnQvLSt
— LDH France (@LDH_Fr) April 5, 2023
ECF, Greenpeace France and Amnesty International France have made public statements defending the LDH against Darmanin’s insinuations and attacks. The LDH now calls for the fight for freedoms and democracy against an “authoritarianism against freedoms” which does not solely affect the LDH, but every French association and activist. LDH sent an open letter to French President Emmanuel Macron asking for support against Darmanin’s attacks on their association.
On April 6th, United Nations Special Rapporteur on environmental defenders Michel Forst shared similar concerns with the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for human rights Dunja Mijatovic on the use of force during demonstrations and the restrictions on civic freedoms in France (read more here)
The support for the LDH continues as on April 11th, the Libertés Associatives Coalition published a collective statement signed by thirty CSOs and unions following comments made by Darmanin and additional French political actors, including the Senator of Tarn-et-Garonne François Bonhomme, who stated “we must stop funding these associations”. This statement denounces the unacceptable attacks on the freedom of association and pluralist democracy which not only impact the LDH, but all French CSOs.