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French police injure students, demonstrators and journalists during Paris protests

Police use tear gas on protesters holding a placard with the letters 'RIC' Referendum d'Initiatives Citoyennes (referendum based on popular initiative) during the 'yellow vests' demonstration in Paris, France, 15 December 2018
Police use tear gas on protesters holding a placard with the letters 'RIC' Referendum d'Initiatives Citoyennes (referendum based on popular initiative) during the 'yellow vests' demonstration in Paris, France, 15 December 2018

Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

This statement was originally published on on 14 December 2018.

French police used crowd control and anti-riot tactics during demonstrations in Paris in November and December 2018 that caused physical harm to peaceful demonstrators, including high-school students, and journalists, Human Rights Watch said today. Law enforcement should exercise greater restraint in demonstrations planned to take place on December 15.

French authorities should investigate whether police tactics were necessary and proportional, and should hold officers to account for excessive use of force. Authorities should immediately ensure that in imminent demonstrations, law enforcement officials exercise the greatest possible restraint and resort to force only when strictly necessary, Human Rights Watch said.

"French police have a tough job policing large crowds of gilets jaunes and protests outside suburban schools, but that doesn't give them carte blanche to use chemical sprays, tear gas grenades, and rubber projectiles," said Kartik Raj, Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Tactics which may be legitimate for deterring violent demonstrations are not an appropriate response to people gathered peacefully, and can cause horrific injuries."

Human Rights Watch documented cases of wounds (including head and neck injuries) caused by direct hits with rubber ball-shaped projectiles shot out of a specialized launcher (known colloquially as "flashballs" because of the trademark of one of the manufacturers); burns and physical injury to limbs from the use of supposedly less-than-lethal tear gas grenades which contain a small, secondary explosive charge; and questionable use of tear gas delivered as a spray.

Human Rights Watch observed riot police using "instant" tear gas grenades and so-called "stingball" grenades (riot control grenades that deliver small rubber balls which create a stinging effect, and can carry an additional payload of tear gas) in Paris on December 8, both in situations where they were confronted with violent protesters and when demonstrators were assembled peacefully and offered no imminent threat to the police or the public. Although their use was potentially justifiable when used to disperse protesters engaged in violence and damage to property, Human Rights Watch assessed that at times the police resorted to their use in a disproportionate and unnecessary manner.

Journalists covering the large gilets jaunes, or "yellow vest," mobilizations, and students (some of whom were children) taking part in unrelated demonstrations outside high schools were among the victims of the police's heavy-handed tactics.

From the start of December, students around the country have protested at high schools against proposed educational reforms to the baccalauréat, the final high-school exam, and the university system. Most of these demonstrations have been peaceful, but some have involved violence and damage to property. In some cases, students blockaded schools. Riot police deployed to clear high-school blockades have used heavy-handed tactics, including the use of tear gas and rubber projectiles in situations that did not pose a direct threat to police forces.

Since mid-November, hundreds of thousands of protesters, many wearing gilets jaunes, have taken to the streets every Saturday in mass demonstrations, primarily to show their opposition to the government's tax policy and to highlight socioeconomic inequality. These have included largely peaceful marches in compliance with police directions, acts of civil disobedience, and some acts of violence including arson, looting, damage to property, and attacks on the police. Law enforcement authorities have dealt with these demonstrations with increasing police deployments and escalating riot control measures.

As of December 11, according to official figures, 1,407 demonstrators and bystanders had been wounded, 46 seriously, in the demonstrations. In addition, 717 law enforcement officers and emergency responders have been classed as "victims of violence." Six people have died in incidents related to the protests, primarily in traffic accidents. The death of an 80-year-old woman in Marseille on December 1, reportedly after exposure to an "instant" tear gas grenade, is under investigation.

The national human rights institution, the Defender of Rights, and a body that previously carried out the Defender of Rights' police oversight duties, the National Commission for Ethics in Security, have consistently raised serious concerns about the police use of rubber projectile launchers. In 2015, the United Nations Human Rights Committee called on France to train law enforcement officials to stop them from using excessive force or nonlethal weapons in situations that do not warrant them. Since 2002, when the French police started to use rubber projectile launchers, their use has resulted in at least one documented death. Several people have been blinded by rubber projectiles, including a demonstrator hurt on December 8, according to media reports.

On December 6, lawyers acting for demonstrators lodged two formal legal complaints against as yet unknown persons for injuries caused by GLI-F4 "instant" tear gas grenades, which contain 25 grams of high-explosives, used by police in Paris on November 24. In December 2017, the Defender of Rights urged the government to provide improved guidance on the use of nonlethal force, including the GLI-F4 grenade. The lawyers have written to the prime minister calling for an end to this weapon for crowd control.

As of December 11, media reports indicated that the General Inspectorate of the National Police, the internal oversight body, had opened 22 investigations into alleged police misconduct following complaints from 15 gilets jaunes, 6 high-school students, and a journalist.

The UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, the European Union Fundamental Rights Agency's guidance, and the French Police Code of Ethics all stipulate that the use of force, including the use of nonlethal weapons for the purposes of crowd control, is legitimate only when necessary and proportionate.

Authorities should consider stopping the use of tear gas grenades until the guidance around their use has been clarified and direct police to stop using rubber projectiles against peaceful protesters or bystanders or where there is risk of injury to children.

"Heavy-handed policing that harms peaceful protesters isn't just wrong - it can actually escalate tension and worsen public order," said Raj. "French authorities should investigate thoroughly all allegations of improper use of force and 'nonlethal' weapons, and review police crowd-control guidelines."

For more detailed accounts, please read the full statement on HRW's site.

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