On November 16th the Gilets Jaunes movement marked one year since it burst onto the scene and threw a spanner in the works of President Macron’s agenda. The protests that began on November 17th 2018 were triggered by a rise in fuel prices which for many was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back amid mounting concern with inequality and the cost of living. It did not start as a rebellion against the police, yet one of the key factors that has kept people returning to the streets week after week is the anger at the injuries, arrests and repression of the movement. This dynamic of police responses to social movements fuelling those same movements has become increasingly common in France and a notable trend since 2016.
Over the course of the last year the state has brought the full power of its police force against the Gilets Jaunes. According to one count 24 people have lost an eye or suffered severe damage (one more injury from November 16th this year can be added to the count) and 5 people have lost a hand while the Ministry of the Interior itself estimates 2,448 injuries.[i] One woman, 80 year-old Zineb Redouane, was killed by a police tear gas canister in December. By September 2019 the same Ministry of the Interior count claims police have used 19,071 of the infamous LDB plastic projectile rounds and over 5,000 sting-ball grenades. An estimated 3,000 court sentences have been handed down, while during the movement’s first phase in November and December last year 3,300 people were arrested and 2,354 detained.[ii] In Paris alone on the December 8th last year 1,082 people were arrested.[iii] Currently there are over 300 open enquiries by the police watchdog (IGPN) into conduct by the forces of order. The first trial, for an officer filmed throwing a paving stone at demonstrators on May 1st, has only just got under way. The slow pace of investigations into the police contrasts with the rapid processing of demonstrators and is hardly surprising since the head of the IGPN declared in June that she “completely refuses the term police violence”.[iv]
The movement that erupted in November last year threw the government into panic. After three consecutive Saturdays of barricades and clashes on some of the world’s most luxurious streets the fuel tax was first frozen and then hastily scraped. For the next Saturday the centre of Paris was put into a state of siege. Metro stations were closed, shops and banks boarded up and the streets were eerily empty. The police force that was deployed to deal with this situation was little short of an army. In addition to their usual array of plastic projectiles and grenades, armoured vehicles rumbled up and down the boulevards. As the crisis continued into the next year the military were put on standby to supplement the police as the anti-terrorist military detachments deployed in French cities since 2015 were directed to guard fixed points. The state got to the point where the only remaining step of escalation was to put the military in direct contact with the protesters.
In subsequent months police powers were augmented. An anti-protest bill made it an offence to cover your face at a demonstration.[v] This is a common move, seen in Greece in 2009 and recently in Hong Kong. In any state where tear gas is deployed this measure is a backdoor way to criminalise protest as covering your face under the gas is a necessity but doing so automatically makes you a criminal. Undeclared demonstrations have been cracked down on and large parts of city centres declared off limits for demonstrations. Official protests can now be surrounded by police before they begin, and the force has increased powers to pre-emptively detain people. While complaints about the police’s ‘non-lethal’ arsenal have grown no weapons have been withdrawn and a new mobile police force has been deployed.
Formally police powers have increased considerably. Informally their position has also been enhanced. While the police have been unable to end the protests, they did show in the winter of last year that they were successfully able to defend the panic-stricken government. The police were not slow to utilize the leverage this gave them. Sections of the police started their own spontaneous demonstrations demanding better pay and bonuses in late December. Some hinted that they were open to joining the ongoing protests. Wisely Macron quickly granted their requests and paid up.[vi] As unpopular governments become more dependent on the police, the police themselves become more independent and more willing to push their own demands and policies.[vii]
Despite the repression the Gilets Jaunes kept coming back. Every Saturday they were there. The government was taken by surprise in March when the police again lost control of the Champs-Élysées months after the movement was believed dead. Macron having been forced to cut short a skiing weekend in the Pyrenees, hastily fired the chief of police. Over time the Gilets Jaunes began to support other sectors in their struggles. On May 1st the traditional demonstrations were augmented by the Gilets Jaunes and for all that a new hard-line police policy was meant to put a stop to the movement the widespread clashes of that day meant that the Interior Minister could only boast that “the worst had been avoided”.[viii] During the summer Gilets Jaunes were present at the protests over the death of Steve Canico who drowned in the Loire after riot police charged a late-night concert by the river. September saw Gilets Jaunes join the climate march in Paris before it was violently dissolved by the police. Numerous Gilets Jaunes will be joining the major strikes planned to begin on December 5th against Macron’s plans for the pension system.
Many of the movement’s participants had not been politically active before and when they mobilised to express their grievances around the cost of living they were shocked to be greeted with grenades, armoured vehicles and permanent injuries. Weapons and tactics which previously had mostly been used on the margins of society, against the working class and diverse population of the suburbs or on the ZAD, were turned against a section of the mainstream of society. The Gilets Jaunes reacted by incorporating criticism of the police into their movement. From early on this year it was notable that the central slogan calling for Macron’s resignation had been lengthened to demand the imprisonment of the Interior Minister. Anti-police slogans gained more currency as time wore on. Calls for bans on the most dangerous elements in the police’s arsenal became central to the movement along with solidarity to the arrested and injured. The police response to the movement did not crush it, instead it added a further reason to mobilise.
In this respect what we have seen over the last twelve months has been a reply of the social movement of 2016. Between March and July of that year a movement of strikes, occupations and demonstrations contested the loi travail, a series of changes to the labour code. What began in March and April with small groups clashing with the police constantly grew till by early summer large riotous demonstrations were taking place almost every week. Every time the riot police tried to disperse these demonstrations more and more people came forward to oppose them. Those who joined the clashes or stood in solidarity with those who did went to the front of the demonstrations and formed the autonomous and heterogeneous, cortège de tête. By summer this breakaway section was as big as the official blocks marching with the trade unions. Riot police tactics based on close contact only inflamed the situation and in the end all the police could do was surround the marches with fences and barriers to contain, but not end, the chaos. This movement ended with the passing of the loi travail and the police on the verge of banning further demonstrations. Significantly though the crowds who formed that movement were never defeated. Over the next eighteen months people searched, unsuccessfully, for moments to resume the momentum of 2016.
This was the atmosphere when the Gilets Jaunes burst onto the scene. The current situation is in many ways the same as that in the summer of 2016. On November 16th this year the majority of Gilets Jaunes in Paris were contained by the police in Place d’Italie and bombarded with tear gas for several hours stifling the day’s demonstrations. The police have been able to tactically check the Gilets Jaunes in the same way they did the movement of 2016 by smoothing gatherings beneath a blanket of total control. However, despite a year of unprecedented repression thousands of people still came out onto the streets of France to mark the movement’s first anniversary. Thousands of people withstood the police barrage in Place d’Italie for hours before setting off on a series of spontaneous demonstrations. Just like the movement of 2016, the Gilets Jaunes have not been defeated and will likely continue to search for ways to act.
Police actions in 2016 and 2018/19 no doubt radicalised many while only temporarily bringing back a sense of control. Should the French state continue on the path of violence and repression it has followed in recent years it has little room to escalate before it arrives at extreme measures. Around the world we are seeing another wave of uprisings and protests as governments of every stripe are incapable of addressing the multiplying signs of crisis. In such times governments become beholden to the security forces which have become their primary response to unrest. As we see principally in Chile and Hong Kong there is just as much chance that police measures will increase the popular response. The more riot police units are militarised the more they lose their ability to control the streets without dangerously increasing tensions. This is the trap that confronts the French state as well. Its police are becoming ever more powerful, armed and assertive yet social movements keep popping up and so far despite everything they have thrown at those on the streets they can only claim that the “worst has been avoided”.
[vii] For a full examination of this pattern see the Invisible Committee Now
Photo credit: Guy Smallman