Do French lives matter?
The brutal police killing of George Floyd has sparked waves of protests not only in the United States but also in the form of solidarity demos in Europe. In the UK, thousands defied the lockdown to march in London, while hundreds also protested in Manchester and Cardiff.
The killing of Floyd, the subsequent protests and riots and the police brutality meted out against demonstrators have all received copious attention in the UK from the media, celebrities, politicians and more.
What is striking in this sudden outpouring of protest is how much it contrasts with the total indifference to the police violence which was, not long ago, on display week in, week out practically on our doorstep.
I’m talking, of course, about the yellow-vest protests in France. The gilets jaunes revolt was the most significant and sustained period of unrest in France since 1968. But the protests themselves garnered disproportionately little media attention. And the many acts of police violence against the protesters raised barely any comment or condemnation whatsoever. The perception of a media blackout was so strong that fake-news stories spread online saying that the British government had actually banned our press from covering the gilets jaunes.
The scale of police violence was astonishing and stomach-churning. Between November 2018 and June 2019, according to figures compiled by Médiapart, 860 protesters were injured by the police – 315 suffered head injuries; 24 lost the use of an eye; and five had hands torn off. In December 2018, an elderly woman who had no involvement in the protests was killed when police threw a grenade into her flat.
Among these victims are not only protesters but also journalists and medics. Police have been filmed beating elderly and disabled people, as well as using tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets against peaceful protesters.
The main source of injuries was ‘Flashball’ rubber bullets – a non-lethal weapon that has been banned in every EU country except France. More than 13,000 of these bullets were fired in the first three months of the protests.
Another extreme weapon used by police was the GLI-F4 – a teargas grenade which contains explosives that maimed numerous protesters. The grenade was eventually banned by the French government in early 2020.
Things got so bad that the UN called for a ‘full investigation’ into the police’s ‘excessive use of force’. Similarly, the Council of Europe’s human-rights commissioner called for an end to the use of Flashballs against protesters. Amnesty International denounced the ‘extremely heavy-handed’ policing deployed against peaceful protesters. Eventually, even the French government acknowledged it had a problem with police violence.
Much of the UK coverage emphasised the violence caused by a minority. They repeated the French government’s smears that anyone donning a yellow vest was likely a racist, homophobe or an anti-Semite – and was probably being manipulated by Russia. Britain’s paper of record, The Times, claimed that the French police had been ‘overpowered’ and ‘powerless’ in the face of the ‘gilets jaunes mob’ – despite the fact that on the weekend concerned, there was a police officer on duty for every protester.
Police brutality ought to be deplored wherever it takes place and whoever it affects. While the rioting in the US is tacitly condoned and understood as a righteous expression of anger, the yellow vests’ populist uprising was looked at with horror. The sad truth is that even when the gilets jaunes were being maimed and brutalised, they did not elicit much sympathy among the political class on these shores.