Can Europe Make It?

France: how come the Black Bloc never get arrested?

Sometimes what doesn’t happen is as important as what does.

Chris Myant
Chris Myant
24 June 2020
Minister of the Interior, Christophe Castaner, and Prefect of Police of Paris, Didier Lallement, on December 30, 2019.
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Bardos Florent/PA. All rights reserved.

Life with Didier Lallement is strange. As the official responsible for running the policing system in the French capital, he is not very keen on you turning up at a demonstration. But once you get there, he often won’t let you leave.

Anniversary rally

The worst of these occasions was on Saturday 16 November 2019, on the anniversary of the first demonstration called by what became “les Gilets jaunes”. After long negotiations, the organisers of this intended birthday party got Lallement’s agreement that they could assemble in the Place d’Italie toward the south east of the centre of Paris and then march off for a demonstration in streets away from the centre of the city.

Instead of a march, thousands of demonstrators were kettled and, on the excuse of random destruction by a handful of hooligans, they were then subjected to the full panoply of French police weaponry covering the spectrum from an officer’s carefully aimed boot to tear gas grenades by the hundreds via a savage use of truncheons (the modern kind that spin on a handle, jab and strike) and generous doses of “grenades de désencerclement”.

These latter were grenades with a substantial explosive charge intended to force people to disperse away from the police using them. Something they could not do as the entire mass was trapped in the square by the surrounding police lines.

The day after and a court case

The day after, while making a tour of inspection of the huge roundabout that is this Place, he was caught on camera in an unpleasant exchange with a local inhabitant who just happened to have been out shopping with a friend when he came by in full uniform. How come, she asked him quite straightforwardly, you do not manage to arrest the “Black blocs”, the handful of violent rioters present at many a trade union and Gilets jaunes rally for some five years now.

Yes, this 61-year-old told the Prefect, I am a Gilet jaune, I live locally and help the victims, but, she added, referring to violence of the day before, “we did not do that”.

Lallement’s reply, caught on TV news cameras was chilling. “Ah, well, we are not in the same camp, Madame.” You can see the exchange here and catch his “ça suffit”, that’s enough, as he turns away from her and walks off.

Instead of an anniversary rally that might have started a revival of the movement, the organisers, Priscillia Ludosky, whose on-line petition in the late summer of 2018 had set the Gilets jaunes ball rolling, and Faouzi Lellouche, who had conducted the negotiations with Lallement’s officers, got a carefully calculated, but utterly brutal, kick in the teeth. In an action delayed by the epidemic, the two have now launched a court case against the Prefect hoping to trigger a full judicial investigation into how he ran the show that day.

They had not wanted to start the day at the Place, but Lallement insisted. It was a building site with all the material lying around that any provocateur could pick up and use. Some did. As the pair announced their case, the Observatoire parisien des libertés publiques, set up by the Ligue des droits de l’Homme and the Paris barristers’ trade union, published a detailed report on what then happened. Just before 2pm the demonstrators were fully kettled and then at 2.23pm a tweet from the prefecture said Lallement has demanded the ending of the demo.

Just after 3pm he gave a press conference at which he said the rally in the Place “brought together individuals who had not come to defend a cause but quite simply to wreck.” So “I decided to ban this demonstration from continuing” but, he added, “to keep it in the Place” even though “the scandalous destruction” going on “is very luckily limited in scope.”

Paris, he told the journalists, was calm “even if the images are spectacular on the Place d’Italie”.

Was that his intention all along? Was it as some thought on the day a carefully arranged ambush? Demonstrators allowed into a trap sprinkled with provocateurs and violent squads of plain clothes police operating like marauding brigands? A grand circus spectacle to crush the remaining public support for the Gilets jaunes?

Looking for proof

Sometimes when looking for proof, a researcher falls lucky and uncovers an incriminating document in the archives. But that is for the history books. That, for instance, is what determined research by Jean-Luc Einaudi uncovered when it came to the actions of one of Lallement’s predecessors as Prefect for Paris, Maurice Papon. Like the present incumbent, Papon had been an official in Bordeaux, where under the Nazi occupation he had helped round up local Jews for the death camps, before a long career as Prefect in that city, Algeria and then Paris. He was the one responsible for the police operation on 17 October 1961 that killed no one knows how many Algerian demonstrators, some just tossed into the Seine.

They might, on the other hand, get some evidence like a photograph of a person disguised one moment as a “Black Bloc” and next appearing with a “Police” armband, do so in real time and so save lives. It would be the equivalent of the smart phone evidence that has been turning the tables on police brutality.

Motorcyclist Cédric Chouviat died in January under the weight of several police officers, asphyxiated with his larynx broken. As Priscillia Ludosky and Faouzi Lellouche were speaking at the press conference to announce their case, we also learned that investigators had found that Cédric Chouviat said seven times: “I can’t breathe”. The phrase was recorded repeatedly via the mike in his crash helmet. That evidence may, just may, convict those responsible.

We also learned that investigators had found that Cédric Chouviat said seven times: “I can’t breathe”. The phrase was recorded repeatedly via the mike in his crash helmet.

Then again an informer, a renegade, a whistleblower might appear to convincingly spill the beans.

Witnesses from that day on the Place d’Italie have spoken of seeing people dressed Black bloc style filtering out through police lines. But no journalistic organisation has yet put the serious effort in to uncover what has being going on, to track and trace it all on camera, so that the “Well, they would say that wouldn’t they” riposte can be put to bed once and for all.

Institutional discrimination

My approach has been a bit different. After years of working for a statutory commission set up to explore the shadowy world of institutional discrimination, I have been as interested in what does not happen as in what does. Take the two in turn.

The ‘what has happened’ is the presence of a small group, never more than 200 or so, who hide their identities head to toe in black clothing, their faces obscured by a hood drawn tight and a scarf. They gather at the front of a demonstration, not all demonstrations, but since their first appearance at the rallies against the drive by Macron’s predecessor François Hollande to neuter trade union power they have been there for protests defending union rights and those called by the Gilets jaunes.

In addition to tossing stones, bottles and, on a few occasions, firebombs at the police, they smashed bus stop shelters, street advertising displays and the windows of premises such as branches of banks or assurance companies. They also left behind a trail of tags with anarchist signs and “anti-capitalist” slogans. All good material for the TV crews and press cameras.

‘What does not happen’ is two things. On the one hand, this group of activists, supposedly motivated by an intense political hatred of the symbols of capitalist power, somehow has consistently resisted the temptation to go into action other than when they could do so along the route of a trade union rally against Macron’s reforms or a Gilets jaunesprotest.

On the other hand, this small group of individuals somehow regularly disappeared back into the urban undergrowth having done their dirty work. The police, often present in thousands, with their spy drones, motorcycle fast reaction squads, plain clothes operatives amid the demonstrators and all the support of the intelligence services tapping emails, social network exchanges and mobile phones, could not simply put a stop to them. The shopper in the Place d’Italiewas spot on with her question.

Plain sight

As Oscar Wilde might have had it in this context, to have one rally wrecked by the Black blocs is a misfortune, to have the lot transformed into scenes of mayhem looks not like carelessness, but like a deliberate ploy on the part of Lallement and those he serves.

For the truth is all has been happening in plain sight. It has been there on the TV screens, on the net, in countless films by journalists or by members of the public. These show police brutality not in the process of arresting the few hooligans (whether they are hotheads or provocateurs) but in punishing those who choose to express their opposition to Macron and his policies.

Back on 1 December 2018 a squad of riot police smashed their way into a Burger King bar near the Arc de Triomphe, their commander shouting the French equivalent of “Bring ‘em out, smack ‘em up”. Cameras caught the officers truncheoning defenceless individuals lying on the floor. On the net you can see a video by a Gilet jaune as she makes her way with others through clouds of tear gas to seek shelter in the bar, and hear her screams as the riot police break in. TV film still out there shows the repeated beatings. It is a tiny microcosm of Place d’Italie a year later. Four police officers were finally taken before the judges for all of this while I was finishing this piece.

While the lawyer for Priscillia Ludosky and Faouzi Lellouche was finalising the case against Lallement, other things were afoot in the world of legal affairs, things that help you understand the feeling behind that unfurling of public anger in the closing months of 2018 when, driving around the country, it seemed as if every roundabout had its brazier attended by a few dozen protesters, and any town of any size had a weekly protest rally.

The special Prosecutor for Public Finance had made a remark before a parliamentary inquiry about their role in preparing the case against the former right wing prime minister, François Fillon caught fiddling nearly two million Euros out of public funds by falsely declaring that his partner, Penelope, had been working for him as a parliamentary assistant. There had, the prosecutor said, been “pressure” from above in the judicial hierarchy.

Parliamentarians on the right jumped up and down in indignation. The prosecutor, they had long claimed, had acted with indecent haste. Fillon was running in the 2017 presidential campaign and, but for the scandal, had had a chance of winning. Normally, cases like his take years. One bunch of ministers from the 1990s was only sentenced in June 2020 over an extraordinary scam involving retro-commissions on submarine sales to Pakistan that were then used to finance the right’s election campaigns. Had Fillon’s case similarly stalled, he could have been in the Elysée rather than Macron.

As things stand, the Fillons are due to get their verdict on June 29. Was the case against them rigged as a result of political pressure? Hardly, as the evidence is all there in the files of the French parliament. And yet, and yet, that same prosecutor had been handling another investigation over Macron’s closest advisor, Alexis Kohler, and his family links to the giant MSC shipping and cruise company. Kohler was carefully discrete about these links while he was a senior government official who just happened to have a role in a system that offered fancy loans to MSC and built its ships.

While we were all absorbing the news about the “pressure” over Fillon, the investigative website Mediapart revealed that a first report for the prosecutor on Kohler had been devastating, but that his lawyers then organised a round of testimonials. One that landed on the prosecutor’s desk was signed “Emmanuel Macron”. The report was edited, all criticism of Kohler removed and any question of a court appearance vanished.

Another who gave a testimonial was Pierre Moscovici, Finance Minister when Macron was just advisor in the Elysée, and then European Commissioner for economics and finance. A week or so before the Mediapart story broke, Emmanuel Macron nominated him to the position of First President of the Cour des comptes, the body that checks on how public money in France is spent. Kohler had been the one running Moscovici’s office.

It all makes those swirling clouds of teargas, that ear-splitting crack of grenades de désencerclement, and the swinging police truncheons organised by Didier Lallement in the Place d’Italie on 16 November 2019 somehow more comprehensible.

For there is another little element that needs to be added in to the mix. In his press conference that Saturday afternoon Lallement made this remark: “I am, obviously, in direct and constant contact with the Minister of the Interior who is following the events and is giving me a certain number of instructions and advice. He himself told me that he was in direct discussions with the President who is following these events hour by hour.”

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