Can Europe Make It?

Wounded beast: the French government’s fake news

Paris, May 1, 2019. Impunity, kettling, racism and gas: a view of the policing from the ground up.

Gabriel Bristow
11 May 2019
"No to the  Benalla-ization of police violence". Paris, on May 1, 2019.
"No to the Benalla-ization of police violence". Paris, on May 1, 2019.
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Michael Nigro/PA. All rihts reserved.

“The centre cannot hold.” This gleeful mantra has a satisfying certainty. What joy to watch while the centre, that once seemed so solid and gleaming, crumbles under the weight of the misery it has bought off and silenced for so long. The centre cannot hold. Murmur it to yourself and feel the thrill. Then remember the vicious tenacity with which the centre defends itself, scorching the earth on its way out. The centre cannot hold; nor will it relinquish its power.

The tenacity of the beleaguered centre can be witnessed in all its violent glory in the actions of the present French government and the police. They desperately need each other. On 1 May 2018, one year into the new presidential mandate, Emmanuel Macron’s personal henchman, Alexandre Benalla, annointed himself riot cop for the day and went to rough up some protestors. Equipped with a helmet, a police armband, and a baton, videos released of Benalla show him dragging around and intimidating people with all the mundane thuggery of the Brigade anti-criminalité[1] and all the personal zeal of presidential power. When the footage came to light, the president walled himself up in a castle of flagrantly deceitful silence. This silence lasted for six days. On the seventh day the president came forth in defiance: “le responsable, c’est moi”. In a message delivered bravely in front of the deputies of his own party, Macron attempted to diffuse the mounting scandal of the blurring of police and presidential power via a display of obfuscating bravado: “If they want the one who’s responsible, he’s right in front of you. Come and get me.”

One year later, the persistent refrain of the Gilets Jaunes — “Emmanuel Macron … we’re coming to get you” — echoes through the streets of Paris on May Day 2019. After 6 months of widespread rebellion, the government and the police are down but not out. The policing of the day and the accompanying communications strategy take the form of a violent and organised lashing out. My friends and I have our bags searched twice before we even glimpse a yellow vest. A biker-gang of 60 police officers mounted two-by-two swarms down a small side street as we near the march. Fearing a repeat of the incineration of the elite café Fouquet during a Gilets Jaunes protest in March, La Rotonde — where Macron celebrated his first round victory in the presidential election of 2017 — has been boarded up and is surrounded by a three-deep thick line of police. We march in tension and teargas.

At the end of the march, trapped like rats, we scurry round the hamster wheel of a large roundabout in Place d’Italie. Each exit is lined by the police who lob rounds of gas canisters at us and baton charge intermittently. A mother and her teenage son are caught unawares in the midst of a bank holiday stroll. An old man, likewise there by accident, loses his wife in the panic. Paving stones are ripped up and broken into pieces to throw back. We watch hopelessly as a huddle of 20 officers charges in and drags out a man chosen at random. After a third and fourth bag search we manage to leave the hamster wheel, only to find ourselves funnelled through interminably cordoned-off back streets.

The whole neighbourhood is a kettle. Down one side street, a gang of police from the Brigade anti-criminalité have arrested a young man of north-African origin and go out of their way — walking blindly past a number of white demonstrators — to search another. All the exits are blocked so that we have no choice but to rejoin the march until we find a gate into a hospital that we can squeeze under and escape.

One hour earlier this hospital, la Pitié-Salpêtrière, had fallen victim to a heinous attack by wanton vandals. Or so the government would have had us believe. At 9pm, the interior minister, one Christophe Castaner tweeted the following: “Here at the Pitié-Salpêtrière, the hospital has been attacked. Healthcare professionals have been assaulted. And a police officer was injured whilst trying to protect the hospital. Unfailing support to our police force: they are the pride of the Republic.” The health minister, Agnès Buzen, went on television to ask: “how could the demonstrators have raped [violer] a hospital?”. According to the director of hospitals in Paris, Martin Hirsch, catastrophe was narrowly avoided when hospital staff managed to prevent protestors from entering an operating theatre.

The real unfolding of events now appears to be somewhat different to governmental hyperbole. Like my friends and I, though earlier and impelled by a cloud of gas, a group of protestors had attempted to escape the demonstration via the Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital. They were then violently pursued and arrested by the police. All 32 of them were taken to a police station and then released the same evening without charges. A video made by Le Monde — known for its pro-Macron leanings — using footage filmed by hospital staff and protestors, shows that what was described by the government as an “attack” was in fact merely a characteristically brutal police operation.

A government that presents itself as an island of reason in a quagmire of fake news shows itself to be nothing but a flailing propaganda machine for a violently disintegrating centre. A year on from the Benalla affair, one might have expected some degree of prudence on the part of the administration. It seems however that what with being desperate and unprincipled, not only can the centre not hold, but it is intent on taking everyone down with it.

[1] The Brigade anti-criminalité, referred to as “la BAC”, is a unit of the national police created in the 1970s to operate in the suburbs of Paris with the highest proportion of immigrants from France’s former colonies. They continue to be at the forefront of racist policing in French cities, as well as intervening in political demonstrations.

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