Gilets Jaunes Under Attack

By Oliver Haynes, a freelance writer and a researcher in politics and French studies at Exeter University. Originally published at openDemocracy

Policing the Gilets Jaunes.

At one of the weekly ‘act’ protests in Paris not far from La Place Sainte Madeline plain clothes police ended up behind a wall of Gilets Jaunes. As they tried to move away they ran into the back of Wilfried, a steelworker from a small town in Burgundy who has recently had a child with his wife of nine years. The policeman fell over at his feet and Wilfried, moving to try and escape the ensuing chaos, spooked a policeman whose hair-trigger instincts led him to shoot Wilfried in the face with a flashball at a range of just over a metre.

Flashballs used primarily in France are rubber bullets that are fired from weapons with the stopping power of a .38 calibre pistol. They can do real damage (as you can see here). There is an unverified recent rumour that someone shot by one lost an eye. Wilfried now sports a nasty scar on his forehead and experiences some symptoms of psychological trauma. He continues to protest, but he is more cautious.

Axelle suffered 2 fractures to her jaw and was left with second degree burns when she was shot in the face by a flashball. She was left looking like someone had bunched a whole pack of cigarettes, lit them all, then stubbed them out on her cheek. The shot to the face caused a trismus (an involuntary contraction of her muscles) meaning she could barely open her mouth. She is a waitress while she looks for a job and has become very vocal in the campaign against police brutality since the incident. She says she was traumatised by the incident: at the time she was convinced her cheek had burst.

Etienne, a railway worker was badly injured on the same day that Wilfried was shot in the head. After hours of being teargassed in Paris he found himself caught between the CRS and the procession he was trying to join. He was there for 10 minutes as tear gas canisters went off, without any major incident. But then, suddenly he collapsed. He was carried away and given first aid. A subsequent hospital visit revealed that the flashball that hit him had shattered his shin bone. He has to take 90 days off work because of his injury and has had to cancel a holiday with his girlfriend too. He can’t drive, so he can’t go and see his two daughters who live with their mum. He has been made more rebellious by the incident. He wants to carry on fighting the cause for justice. He’s a committed anti-capitalist, but he acknowledges there are issues with the movement. He says he wants to see the end of capitalism and the renewal of humanity. Like Wilfried and many others, the repression has only reaffirmed his commitment to the movement.


Teargas in Paris.

Manon was on the climate march on the 8th, then stayed around for the Gilets Jaunes. Her and two friends were walking away from the city-centre at the time. The only indication she had been protesting was that she wore her nurse’s coat and was carrying a first aid kit. When she was shot, the protest was over and there was no crowd. She’s not even entirely sure where it came from, only that it hit her in the foot. Such is the nature of the flashball that the possibly accidental shot fractured her metatarsal. She has filed a complaint, and has been forced to go on sick leave until early February.

Flashballs are not the only weapons the CRS use to maim protesting citizens. Siegried was a protestor on the roundabouts but decided to go to Paris where the more impactful protests were. He made the journey back from Paris to Vitry le Francois via Reims where he was treated for severe injuries. Hundreds of tiny bits of plastic had peppered his skin and perforated his ear drum. He had stood too close to a CRS tactical grenade when it went off. Other people have been battered by truncheons and water cannons.

These were a handful of cases from Paris, but there are many more wounded by the brutal apparatus of the security state trying to crush their protests across the country. Jacques Pezet is a factchecking journalist for Liberation and found 94 cases of severely injured Gilets Jaunes by January 14. His count was only those that could be verified with complete certainty. The campaign group Desarmons-les and the journalist and documentary maker David Dufresne have counted more.

Many people have made claims about the Gilets Jaunes and fake news – antisemitism and conspiracy theories have been a problem within the movement. This was how Jacques started looking into it: people kept coming to Checknews, the department of Liberation that he works for, to see if the claims being made online were true. He tells me that out of the compilations of injured Gilets Jaunes that have been circulated, he thinks at least 8/10 are real: the others are lacking in detail or are of poor photo quality making them difficult to verify. In the beginning there may have been some fakery surrounding images online, he says, but now there are so many people injured, particularly people shot in the face by flashballs, that the people who wanted to fake things to make a point have become redundant, their point has been made for them by the facts.

He told me about David Dufresne’s thesis that the high level of violence is due to inexperienced police officers being drafted in who normally deal with hardened criminals like drug dealers, and who consequently do not know how to respond to ordinary people. This is no excuse though for the state maiming its citizens: use of flashballs is both unnecessary and shocking. Given the number of severe head and facial injuries, you would never have guessed that the police are not supposed to shoot people in the face with flashballs. But they seem to feel that they can act with impunity. Currently the number of inquiries into violence by police stands at around 60 and will increase as time goes on. The campaign to disarm the riot cops is gaining traction in a way not seen before, because even seasoned French protestors are alarmed by the reaction they have been met with.

Many figures of the European establishment regard Emmanuel Macron as the saviour of the European project. Yet his response to these protests – violence, mass arrests and the reinstatement of national service for 16-year olds – would hardly be out of step with the more retrograde national populist and authoritarian regimes. If Emmanuel Macron wants to save his reputation, let alone Europe, he must start leading by example, ban the flashball, and take these protests seriously rather than continuing to lapse in moments of anger into diatribes about scroungers while he lets the riot cops run riot against protesters.

Macron’s response suggests what other leaderless protest movements across Europe will face as systems continue to collapse. The Gilets Jaunes have arisen out of the profound inequality that is fracturing societies across Europe. It is against that inequality that leaders must take a strongman stance. There is nothing strong about attacking protestors who are just trying to make their voices heard.

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  1. Jeff

    the reinstatement of national service for 16-year olds

    To be correct, that point was part of his election platform, so it is not a reaction to the protests.
    But I agree we will see more leaderless protests again other rudderless politicians.

  2. jfleni

    It always happens: The desire of cops is to butt-#### the peasants whenever
    there is any disagreement!

  3. Phillip Allen

    I remember the days when the chant in the street of Paris was “CRS-SS”. Plus ça change…

      1. hemeantwell

        Ou encore le cri: “Ne tirez pas sur vos freres!”

        The CRS-SS slogan developed largely out of CRS attacks on students, whom the CRS could easily warp into an Other before bashing their heads in. But the Gilets Jaunes seem to be from a social base that must overlap quite a bit with that of the CRS. I hope that some enterprising and maybe necessarily courageous soul can do some interviews to see what the cop rank and file thinks about this.

  4. oaf

    This is why United Statesians will never take up the Yellow. Rather watch someone else get trashed…Here; the people would rather not see it coming. The Gillet Jaunes got balls.

    1. Joe Well

      Say what?? Protesting Americans have faced down police who act with true impunity and are decked out in full tactical military gear. In particular, the early days of BLM.

        1. JBird4049

          The ant-War, the Civil Rights and the Free Speech Movements all got a lot of police, and even some civil, violence in the 60s and early 70s.

          And the Union Movement always got police and company “security” violent and sometimes lethal attention before then.

          Actually from the 1850s to the early 1970s there were frequent protests, and often violent responses. Punctuated with the occasional peaceful time during war.

    2. rd

      It is really difficult to get 40 year olds to protest. It takes a concerted effort to break down the structure of their lives to put them into the position where they will do it.

      Historical examples I can think of include the American Revolution, French Revolution, Bonus Army in 1930s, civil rights movement, Trump campaign rallies, and recent Women’s Marches. Anti-Vietnam War and environmental protests of the 60s tended to be younger generation.

      Big ongoing protests of middle-aged crowds indicate that there is something fundamentally broken in society. Otherwise, they would be working their day jobs, looking after the kids, and generally trying to enjoy life.

      1. Bob

        Anecdotal for sure but my aunt ( who has an extreme case of tds) went to the women’s march. It was on a saturday. They got tipsy off wine on the ride down. They got lit on the ride home. It wasn’t a protest. It was a field trip

        1. rd

          When was the previous time that she took an entire day to go to a rally? It takes a powerful undercurrent to get people this age to re-allocate time to something like this.

          Many violent demonstrations don’t start out violent. They start out as “field trips” and end up with violence. A handful of rabble-rousers and grumpy or scared policemen can completely change the day.

  5. Sol

    Not sure Europe (or the US) has any leaders. There’s ever so many people wielding power, and yet none of them seem to be leaders.

  6. Summer

    “Macron’s response suggests what other leaderless protest movements across Europe will face as systems continue to collapse.”

    Systems haven’t continued to collapse. People working day in and day out keep the systems going.
    They just rebrand.

  7. Susan the Other

    wow. I used to say I wanted to be reincarnated as an irate French farmer with a high-tech manure spreader – now I just want to be reincarnated as French anything. If little Manu Macron – the gilded turd – wants to save France he’s gotta start eating it fast. Like a contest to see how many hot dogs you can eat in less than one goddamn minute.

  8. Sound of the Suburbs

    Neoliberals are using every trick in the book to try and make it look as though their ideology is working.

    Germany is seen as a great success story, but just scratch the surface and what do you find?

    “Germany is turning to soft nationalism. People on low incomes are voting against authority because the consensus on equality and justice has broken down. It is the same pattern across Europe,” said Ashoka Mody, a former bail-out chief for the International Monetary Fund in Europe.

    Mr Mody said the bottom half of German society has not seen any increase in real incomes in a generation. The Hartz IV reforms in 2003 and 2004 made it easier to fire workers, leading to wage compression as companies threatened to move plants to Eastern Europe.

    The reforms pushed seven million people into part-time ‘mini-jobs’ paying €450 (£399) a month. It lead to corrosive “pauperisation”. This remains the case even though the economy is humming and surging exports have pushed the current account surplus to 8.5pc of GDP.”

    This is a success story!

    The new mini jobs seem to be a big part of it and 94% of jobs created by Obama were part time. The minimum wage is specified at an hourly rate, so a part time job doesn’t pay a living wage.

    One old full time job = two or more mini jobs

    They can then say how low unemployment is, and the UK is using this cover story as the UN inspector found when he came to investigate our problems with poverty.

    “The UK Government can’t keep touting employment statistics as an answer to poverty when 60% of those in poverty are in working families, and 2.8 million are in poverty in families where all adults work full time.”

    There has been a general manipulation of statistics to make things look much better than they actually are.

    Part 4 : Loaded Dice

    Poor old Macron was the first to pay the price, as French policymakers had no idea that wages weren’t keeping up with real inflation until the “Yellow Vests” hit the streets.

  9. David

    This story is a bit misleading in several ways. National service (basically a few months of largely civil activities) is an idea that has been discussed a lot and did not originate with Macron. The hope is that it will restore a bit of social mixing among the young. It has nothing to do with the gilets jaunes.
    Beyond that, with incidents all over France every day it’s hard to know what to think. The police do not have the equipment to deal with small groups and they are forbidden use of lethal weapons. The problem is that this has been going on for so long now that so called ‘non-lethal’ weapons, which are only relatively not absolutely safé, are bound to result in some casualties eventually . There is no repressive policy as such: that would be political suicide and anyway the forces are simply not there to implement it. But there are a lot of tired, angry and sometimes frightened policemen, some stupid or violent GJs and a lot of scope for something quite serious to happen. The main effort of the government is propaganda – painting the GJs as fascist troublemakers. But it’s not working.

    1. Christophe

      “are bound to result in some casualties eventually”?
      Nothing wrong with that, is there? Just a bit o’ sport. Funny, that, actually. Couldn’t blame those innocent bobbies, now could we? Go on and change the telly before there’s any more blood.

      Supposing you wouldn’t much agree with reversing your subjects to read, “But there are a lot of tired, angry and sometimes frightened GJs , some stupid or violent policemen and a lot of scope for something quite serious to happen.” That almost makes me feel sympathy for the protesters rather than the police. Forswear!


    The other day I read a left criticism of the Gillets Jaunes for having almost no black/brown participants. As if, black and brown people live in small towns and rural areas in France or any other Western countries.

  11. Knute Rife

    And now I’m starting to hear that GJ is a Putin-backed attack on Macron. The corporatist spin never ends.

  12. mrtmbrnmn

    Recall that the Wall Street toadie Obama and Bloomberg, the diminutive multi-billionaire Mayor of Wall Street…uh…New York, along with dozens of Mayors and Municipal officials across the country conspired with police and DHS goons to beat the living daylights out of the Occupy Wall Street protesters because of their “terrifying” rallying slogan: We are the 99%!! The Truth is kryptonite to all these lying, thieving political pimps & sharmutas and must be crushed by all dread means. May the Gilets Jaunes stand their ground against the Macron misgovernment and multiply!!

    1. Rebel dissent

      What are some of the demands of the GJ?
      Our corporatist hollow media in usa never covers it with an nuance or depth.
      As a spontaneous uprising by French workers and citizenry across many towns
      Middle aged folks participating,

      Are they claiming the same rights as we american need?
      Decent wages, we have no deent health care in american,
      May the Gilles Jaunet perpetuate and continue to swell and wax in numbers.

      It inspires many of us here in america!

  13. Scott1

    Rubber bullets are not supposed to be fired directly at people. They are supposed to be shot at the pavement and bounce into people. That is supposed to make them less lethal.

  14. KPL

    Looks like we have not reached the ‘Let them eat cake’ moment. But then if the Yellow Vest can maintain momentum (ideally increasing momentum) with no let up we will get there one day.

    Civil wars take time to build up but the way the cabal of central bankers, banksters, politicians and corporate are going we will get one sooner or later.

    Looks like the Davos crowd will learn their lesson only when there is a civil war.

  15. Craig H.

    French ‘yellow vests’ defy Macron again in tense protests (reuters)

    On the 11th consecutive weekend of action against the government, 69,000 people took to the streets, including 4,000 in Paris, the interior ministry said, down from an estimated 84,000 demonstrators across the country last Saturday. Marches were mostly peaceful but there were incidents in several towns, including in the capital, where an eye injury to a well-known “yellow vest” activist added to recent controversy over police violence.

    1. Estimates of 69 000 and 84 000 of people on the street look like exactly the same thing to me at my computer table. Don’t know how to estimate numbers of people on the street and I don’t think the French interior ministry does either.

    2. If the number of protesters is not declining, the quantity of coverage definitely looks like it is declining to me. There was not even the old standby RT livestream yesterday. :(

  16. JBird4049

    Has anyone noticed that the average American protester would likely be bankrupted by the medical bills (despite any “insurance” that they might have) and taking even days off from work, forget about weeks, would likely make them homeless?

    It is weird to see accounts of people going to the hospital and not have them mention the cost, or perhaps bring up their new account at GoFundMe.

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