Saturday, November 21, 2020

France Has Broken The Back Of The Gilet Jaune Protest Movement

jacobin |  In addition to police brutality, the state moved in to curtail the movement with mass arrests of thousands, judicial harassment, and illegal tactics. Simpere speaks of “very repressive laws that allow almost anyone, including peaceful demonstrators, to be arrested, often ‘preventatively.'” More specifically, she points out the use of two vaguely defined laws that she considers contrary to international law: one punishing the “preparation of group violence,” under which many people with protective gear like goggles have faced judicial persecution; and one forbidding “contempt toward police forces,” used more than twenty thousand times in 2019 alone. She cites the case of protesters in Narbonne prosecuted for this offense, simply because they had a banner denouncing the severe injuries caused by flash-balls.

In early December 2018, the authorities started to widely disregard their own laws. Alimi calls it “state illegality,” a concept he plans to elaborate in an upcoming book: “The state itself becomes criminal,” he explains, “as its representatives decide to deliberately violate the law to prevent the expression of civil liberties.” In addition to mass preventive arrests and illegal searches, he names the case of a state prosecutor calling on his substitutes to keep people in custody for the maximum length in order to prevent them from demonstrating, despite having no evidence against them. “France shifted from a justice system that punishes actions to a justice system that punishes intentions,” he says.

This judicial repression has led to unprecedented numbers of arrests, with more than eleven thousand detained and more than three thousand convicted. “The courts were working like a production line,” recalls Gassiot, “with speedy trials on Mondays for those arrested on Saturdays.” Alimi counts about seven hundred to eight hundred gilets jaunes currently in jail — and he has himself defended many of those arrested. “They have been victims of an incomparable judicial violence and discrimination; they’ve been treated like animals,” he says. Unusually for France, even people with no criminal records were sentenced to jail time. “They were lower-middle-class people endangered by poverty; they were simply trying to keep their head above water, but they were pushed down — and drowned.”

his swift and merciless justice against the gilets jaunes contrasted with the lack of judicial reaction to police brutality. Despite the thousands of acts of violence against protesters — many of them proven by solid video evidence — the available information reveals that only seven police officers have been convicted. All of them received suspended sentences, with no discharge. Simpere describes the cases as “largely symbolic,” expressing her “serious doubt that there will be sentences corresponding to the seriousness of injuries.” Alimi is less diplomatic, calling the few convictions “crumbs thrown to the people to calm popular anger.”

During the first months of the crisis, as blood was being spilled every week, the government maintained a hard line in denying the existence of police violence, even refusing to use the word. Challenged on the issue by a citizen during a debate in March 2019, President Emmanuel Macron snapped back: “Do not talk about repression and police violence — those words are unacceptable in a state with the rule of law!” According to widely respected French daily Le Monde, citing insider sources, this unshakable political support for repression came from a genuine fear in December 2018 that rank-and-file police might abandon their post — and let the uprising prevail.

While the climate of police impunity might be linked to the high political stakes, my interviewees note that this lack of accountability has been pervasive for decades. The “police of the police” — the infamous Inspection Générale de la Police Nationale (IGPN) — is widely derided as a “whitewashing machine,” systematically clearing up on behalf of its colleagues. Simpere points out that “there is a clear conflict of interests when police officers have to monitor other police officers, and also when magistrates who are working in close collaboration with the police are the ones who are supposed to lead investigations against the police.”

Alimi goes further, stressing the whole systemic structure enabling police impunity in France. He says it starts with police officers and their hierarchy “who never acknowledge any act of violence and put into place a set of dissimulation measures every time there is any violence, including the systematic faking of official reports.” He then goes on to point out the lack of judicial independence in France, where “prosecutors are under the authority of the Justice Ministry, and see themselves as protecting public order, which leads them to protect the police.” This translates into prosecutors lying and blocking inquiries, among other things, by reacting more than thirty days after events, once footage from public cameras has already been erased.

Despite facing this “judicial wall,” Alimi says that amateur videos are changing the game. His team has imported techniques from groups like Black Lives Matter, making online calls for videos and witnesses. “Those videos have shattered the administration’s lies and have revealed dissimulation techniques.” As for judges, Alimi also points out that some are starting to recognize the need for real investigations into police work, but he says that it is too early to make an honest appraisal of investigations into police violence against the gilets jaunes. “We will know in two to three years,” he says, “then we can make a final assessment of those investigations, and maybe even talk about a transformation of the approach to police violence.”