A previous version of this article incorrectly said that France’s interior minister blamed far-right instigators for violent actions at recent protests. In fact, he blamed far-left instigators. The article has been corrected.
“There are now hundreds of testimonies of police brutality that cannot be justified by the law,” said Sebastian Roché, a professor at Sciences-Po Grenoble who researches French policing.
Police and government officials have defended security forces, saying they were working to maintain order and protect peaceful protesters from violence. French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said hundreds of police officers had been injured and blamed far-left instigators for the clashes.
“It is possible that, individually, some police, often because they are tired, commit acts that do not conform with what they were taught,” he said, adding that 11 inquiries into police behavior were opened by the force’s internal affairs watchdog over the past week.
But top human rights officials at the United Nations and the Council of Europe, which is headquartered in Strasbourg, France, have also weighed in, condemning what they said was excessive use of force by law enforcement officers.
Even if some protesters engaged in “sporadic acts of violence,” Dunja Mijatovic, human rights commissioner for the Council of Europe, said in a statement Friday, it “cannot justify excessive use of force by agents of the state.”
The unrest started earlier this month after French President Emmanuel Macron, seeking to raise France’s retirement age from 62 to 64, pushed through an unpopular bill he said was necessary to ensure the future of the country’s pension system. Since then, both the protest movement and the police response have heated up, turning less predictable and more violent, rights groups say.
On Thursday, more than a million people took to the streets and blocked critical services across France in an outpouring of anger over the measure. Riot police clashed with protesters in Bordeaux, Nantes and Rennes, and in Paris, tens of thousands of mostly peaceful demonstrators marched in the streets, while some burned trash cans, vandalized property or threw objects at police.
In response, “the use of force by the police became excessive,” said Patrick Baudouin, president of the Ligue des droits de l’homme (LDH), or Human Rights League, one of the premier human rights groups in France.
In particular, he cited police officers’ use of flash-ball launchers — whose projectiles “can be very, very dangerous if they touch the face” — as well as their “excessive use of tear gas.”
French authorities must ensure the safety of protesters and refrain from using unnecessary or excessive force. #ProtectTheProtest ✊ pic.twitter.com/TM2psTziq2— Amnesty International (@amnesty) March 23, 2023
Police have also engaged in kettling, Baudouin said, in which officers surround large crowds and prevent them from leaving. The practice is “not totally illegal,” he said, but should only be used when absolutely necessary and under certain conditions, according to France’s Council of the State, the top body for administrative justice.
Some viral clips show police striking protesters in the face while they are walking down the street, or surrounding large crowds and bringing batons down on the backs of demonstrators. On live television Thursday, police sprayed tear gas at a group of teenagers, perched atop a bus stop shelter and talking to journalists.
Several journalists covering the protests have reported being injured or harassed by police as well, said Pauline Adès-Mével, a spokeswoman for press freedom advocacy group Reporters Without Borders.
One independent journalist, Paul Boyer, told the French newspaper Liberation that while he was covering a protest in Paris Thursday night, a member of the BRAV-M police force, which was “hitting everyone” in the crowd, had brought his baton down twice toward Boyer’s face, even after Boyer shouted “Press!” and held up his press card. The impact of the baton fractured Boyer’s hand, which he had used to protect his face.
“What we are seeing now is ultra worrying,” Adès-Mével said.
The incidents have reignited a national debate on police tactics, one that most recently emerged during the “yellow vest” protests that began in 2018. That movement, triggered by opposition to a planned fuel tax, included weekly protests against the cost of living. Police responded with tear gas grenades, ball-shaped rubber projectiles and chemical spray, burning and maiming protesters, according to Human Rights Watch, which documented the injuries.
The backlash prompted France’s Interior Ministry to codify in one document, for the first time, a framework for appropriate police conduct, said Roché, the policing expert. Since then, however, the government has pursued “a strategy of refusal, in fact, to confront police violence,” he said, adding that the police violence of the yellow vest era appears to have returned.
"Les policiers ont tout fait pour protéger les manifestants", Aurore Bergé, 23 mars 2023. pic.twitter.com/FKjk0OSxEA— Mickaël Correia (@MickaCorreia) March 23, 2023
One case this month, captured in an audio recording obtained and verified by the French newspaper Le Monde on Friday, has generated a particular outcry, intensifying public ire toward the special riot police force known as the BRAV-M. Created in 2019 to tamp down the yellow vest demonstrations, the unit deploys in pairs on motorcycles to help quell protests.
In the audio clip, excerpts of which were published by news site Loopsider on social media, members of one BRAV-M unit can be heard threatening, slapping and directing sexual innuendo at a group of seven young people during an arrest in Paris on Monday, according to Le Monde.
“You’re so lucky to be sitting there, now that we’ve arrested you. I swear, I’d have broken your legs, literally. I can tell you, we’ve broken elbows and faces ... but you, I’d have broken your legs,” one officer says in the recording, Le Monde reported. Two slapping sounds can be heard, the report says, along with an officer saying, “Wipe that smile off your face.”
Later in the clip, a police officer warns the young people they have detained: “Next time we come, you won’t be getting in the car to go to the police station. You’ll be getting in another thing called an ambulance to go to the hospital.”
Paris police chief Laurent Nuñez said Friday he was “very shocked” by the audio clip and that police misconduct was unacceptable and would be investigated.
Some activists and leftist lawmakers are calling for the dissolution of the specialized brigade. But on French radio Saturday, Nunez voiced his support for BRAV-M, calling it “an indispensable unit for the maintenance of the republican order.”
Baudouin, the LDH president, also called for the formation of an independent body to investigate allegations of police brutality.
He said he worries heavy-handed police tactics will only fuel violence on the streets.
For the government, “it is absolutely necessary to recognize the legitimacy of the popular movement, take it into account and return to a real social dialogue, to calm the current tensions,” he added, “otherwise there will be an escalation that will no longer be controllable.”