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Poor French people: legitimate targets

While Western liberal opinion has wrung its hands over authoritarian measures deployed against protestors in Hong Kong and Moscow, less attention has been paid to the low level counterinsurgency that the French state has been engaged in against its own citizens for several months. To get away with violent repression, it turns out you just have to be seen as a liberal globaliser fighting against the ‘left behinds’.

Eye injuries sustained by Hong Kong protester and 4 of the 24 Gilets Jaunes who have lost an eye since November 2018

Left: Woman shot in the eye with suspected bean bag round during Hong Kong protests. Right: just four of the Gilet Jaunes protesters who have lost an eye from police 'non-lethal' flash rounds. In total 24 protesters have been blinded in one eye since November 2018.


In recent weeks there has been wall-to-wall media coverage of the protests and the authorities’ robust response in both Hong Kong and Moscow. Images of a young Russian woman already in custody being punched by a uniformed officer and another young female Hong Kong protestor bleeding from an eye wound after being shot at by police made the news world-wide. In Hong Kong, propaganda savvy protestors quickly adopted an eye-patch to symbolise the life changing nature of the injury inflicted. So it comes with a bit of a jolt to realise that a democratically elected government, considerably closer to home, has been getting away with far worse for a lot longer.

Following a fuel tax hike by French President Macron in Autumn 2018, a nationwide grassroots protest quickly emerged. In an inspired move they adopted the yellow safety vest, hence the nickname ‘gilets jaunes’ as a sort of proletarian livery in order to underscore the manual working class nature of the protest. The first outing took place on 17 November. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets. In the months that followed, thousands have been injured: their jaws broken, teeth shattered. Five have had limbs blown off, twenty four eyes have been lost. The toll is immense, but reporting by the media has either been non-existent or downplayed. A picture might still be worth a thousand words, but only if it’s published. (Some of the gruesome injuries have been catalogued at

Had anything like that been visited on either the students fronting the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong or anti-corruption protestors in Moscow there would have been an international outcry. Yet, when it comes to homegrown protest, the liberal left have backed into an absurd and dangerous corner. Absurd, because as far as they are concerned, even, or perhaps particularly, if you happen to be one of the so-called ‘left behinds’, unless you are prepared to sing the praises of globalisation (including on ‘open borders’, the ultimate in neo-liberal de-regulation) with enthusiasm then you are either an out and out fascist, or fellow traveller. Why is this dangerous? For the simple reason that if everyone is a fascist, then by the same token no one is.

A more specific explanation for media self-censorship is that President Macron, the slayer of Marine Le Pen in the 2016 Presidential election, is now regarded as a sort of anti-fascist icon by metropolitan liberals, not just in France but across Europe. So when taking to the streets to oppose him, the bone fides of the opposition were immediately called into question. Thirty years ago this same demographic would have been instantly slammed by the Right as ‘communist’, but today they are caricatured by the Left as ‘fascist.’

“A bunch of dumb rednecks… looters, thugs, anti-republicans, anti-Semites, racists, and homophobes”

Jean Quatermer, the Brussels correspondent for the liberal left newspaper Liberation, described the protestors as “a bunch of dumb rednecks…looters, thugs, anti-republicans, anti-Semites, racists, and homophobes.” With this narrative established from the very beginning, every transgression that seemed to support it was amplified. For the authorities it meant the provincial working class protestors were basically fair game. The gloves could come off.

On May Day for example, when the official march was heavily tear-gassed, half blind protestors fled and sought sanctuary in the grounds of a hospital. The incident happened at 4 pm. By 8 pm, Paris’ chief of police was being filmed at the hospital asserting that the gilets jaunes had attacked gravely ill patients in the resuscitation room. Rebuttal videos (one by a nurse) were posted up by 10.30. Yet the media persisted in presenting the police fiction for another 24 hours.

At the beginning of August after a relatively trivial incident that involved a broken office window, the protesters were denounced as “terrorist”. Certainly in the 40 weeks of protests there have, inevitably, been injuries on both sides. The Interior Ministry at the last count gave the numbers injured 2,448 gilets jaunes versus 1,797 police. Typically the police are encouraged to report every scratch bruise and hang nail, including even temporary deafness brought on by the sound of their own munitions.

The munitions in question are the 40mm projectiles ‘LBD40’, routinely referred to as a Flash-Ball. The rigid outer casing and the speed with which it is delivered (360km/h) is credited with doing much of the devastating facial damage. Also liberally employed are GLI-F4 stun grenades which contain 25 grams of TNT and actually explode before delivering CS gas. There have been repeated calls by, among others, Amnesty International for the authorities to abandon their use. The French Government’s most gracious concession to date is to say it will stop using stun grenades – when stocks run out.

The strategic thinking behind the complete lack of discrimination in choosing targets is so that ordinary punters will stay at home. The thinning of the herd in such a fashion will eventually mean only the ideologically hard-core stick it out. But tellingly, although numbers might be down, the level of violence isn’t. During a relatively small demonstration in Montpellier in June there were still 30 serious incidents of wounding, one so severe that the victim was initially reported to have died.

But it’s never been just a numbers game. According to David Dufresne of the French news site Mediapart, part of that hardcore as far as the authorities were concerned were “the street medics and the media.” Reporters Sans Frontiers has documented well over 100 cases of journalists encountering serious problems. Recording equipment has been smashed, memory cards snapped and journalists have been beaten and shot at with LBD’s. The paramilitary CRS, which was formed in 1944, (partly recruited from the ranks of the equally detested GMR, the force used by the Vichy regime to pacify the French Resistance) are the primary purveyors of the violence. And yet internationally the liberal press has sat on its hands. Even ordinary solidarity with fellow hacks appears to be absent.

A visible fusing of strategies between democracies and dictatorships

When this absence of condemnation allows the CRS to effectively be welcomed on board as part of a progressive democratic anti-fascist coalition it signals a profound, not to say Orwellian, shift in the political landscape. One consequence is that Left and Right as a guide to a base political ideology instantly loses a sense of consistent application. And in the resulting fog, open dictatorships and malfunctioning democracies are able to ape and shape each other’s responses to mass unrest in a fairly shameless fashion. China, for instance, has followed the example set by the French and labelled the Hong Kong pro-democracy protestors as “close to terrorism”. Similarly, when challenged by a Channel 4 reporter that Russian police were being heavy handed a police representative barely repressed a snigger, before referencing “Paris” by way of context. Evidently what works in Moscow, Hong Kong and Paris today, can work just as easily in Berlin and London tomorrow.

In August 1819 following events at Peterloo the Times editorial thundered: “That nearly a hundred of the Kings subjects have been sabered by a body of cavalry in the streets of the town in which most of them are inhabitants was a dreadful act.” Two hundred years later, working class inhabitants of French towns may well wonder who is there to champion them when mown down by today’s version of the Hussars. Repeated surveys have shown that a belief in the need to abide by democratic outcomes is ebbing, especially amongst middle class millennials. And in 2016, when Brexit was followed by the election of Trump, calls from prominent, ostensibly liberal, philosophers for universal suffrage to be re-visited surfaced on both sides of the Atlantic.

Add in the body language of the big tech firms, who seem to already regard themselves as independent political entities, and little by little a page is being turned on democracy at least as hitherto understood. When put together with the visible fusing of strategies between democratic and dictatorial forms of governance, and a final show down between the narrow elite and the working class globally becomes fractionally less a matter of if, and rather more a matter of when.

2 Responses to “Poor French people: legitimate targets”

  1. Paul B Says:

    Good to see the website is back up and running.

  2. Martin1 Says:

    It’s been too long!

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