PARIS — Rejecting complaints that heavy police use of golf-ball-size rubber bullets has caused serious injuries, including blindness and fractures, during the Yellow Vest protests, France’s highest administrative court Friday upheld the legality of the weapons.
The ruling was a boost for the French government’s tough police strategy in the face of a popular uprising that is diminished but still vigorous.
Dozens have been mutilated or blinded by the projectiles over weeks of Yellow Vest demonstrations, according to victim advocates. Bystanders, passers-by, people with their arms in the air, and journalists have been hit. Jaws have been fractured, hands crushed, eyes shot out.
Their use — overuse, critics say, with more than 9,200 firings recorded, including forbidden shots to the head — have come to symbolize an increasingly fierce police response to the Yellow Vests, especially after a protest leader’s eye was seriously injured last week.
But in its ruling upholding the use of the projectiles, the high court, called the Council of State, instead underlined the violence of the Yellow Vest protests, which at their peak in December shook the government of President Emmanuel Macron.
And the court noted fears that this violence would continue, as the Yellow Vests prepared for a 12th consecutive weekend of protests this Saturday, organized as a tribute to victims of what is deemed police violence. Protesters planned to brandish portraits of the injured leader, Jérôme Rodrigues, his eye shut tight; the police are investigating that shooting.
The court’s decision came in the same week Mr. Macron’s government bolstered its anti-Yellow Vest arsenal on the legislative front, pushing through much of a tough new “anti-vandals” law in the National Assembly, including a provision allowing officials to bar suspect individuals from taking part in protests, and a ban on face masks.
After weeks of violent protests punctuated by calls for his resignation, Mr. Macron has only recently been seen as regaining the upper hand, pushing a new strategy of dialogue with citizens in meetings all over France. Meanwhile, his government has put an increasingly negative spin on the protests: “These are not demonstrations, they are urban riots,” said an Interior Ministry official, Pascale Léglise, at an emergency hearing before the high court on Wednesday.
The government has insisted that the 40-millimeter rubber-bullet guns and their projectiles, about the size of golf balls, are essential tools for the police. But their use makes France an outlier with respect to Western Europe, if not the United States. French police officers, and particularly the heavily armored paramilitary anti-riot CRS force, have historically been granted wide latitude in suppressing demonstrations.
American police officers made frequent use of rubber bullets during the protests in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, sometimes causing serious injuries. In France the country’s official human rights watchdog has urged banning them for crowd control.
Still, the strategy of an uncompromising police response to the Yellow Vests — heavy use of tear gas, nonlethal rubber bullets and water cannons — appears to have helped reduce the severe urban vandalism of the protests’ early days, when the streets of Paris’s luxury districts were littered with burning cars and smashed store windows.
This strategy has been met with approval from a key right-leaning constituency being wooed by Mr. Macron, whose approval ratings have only recently begun to edge up after sagging to record lows.
His political difficulties are not over, however, and he acknowledged to French journalists this week that he was still “walking on ice” even as the Yellow Vests have begun to form candidate lists for the coming European elections.
Human rights activists have criticized the toll so far exacted by the so-called “defense bullet-launchers”: more than 350 people, including dozens of journalists, have been wounded or mutilated, with 159 struck in the head and as many as 17 losing eyes. The police acknowledge there have been four blindings.
“This weapon is simply too dangerous to use in a demonstration,” Regis Froger, a lawyer for the leftist union CGT, said during the emergency hearing this week before the high court. “It’s a weapon designed to wound and mutilate,” he said. “And there is a real dissuasive effect on the right to demonstrate.”
To his left in the ornate court chamber sat four Yellow Vest victims of shootings who had traveled to Paris from the southern city of Montpellier, one still bearing a livid scar on his face. Another, Cynthia Lubin, a 31-year-old saleswoman shot in the forehead, wept.
But the French court on Friday endorsed the police argument that it could not keep the peace without rubber bullets, even as it noted that “very serious” injuries had resulted.
The “numerous demonstrations” all over France “have frequently been accompanied by gratuitous violence, assaults, vandalism and destruction,” the court said. “Because it is impossible to rule out such incidents in future demonstrations, it is necessary for law enforcement to continue to use these weapons, particularly appropriate in these situations,” the court wrote in its decision.
“We haven’t talked about the police victims,” Ms. Léglise of the Interior Ministry said during the emergency hearing. “It would be irresponsible to ban it.”
The human rights lawyers immediately vowed to appeal Friday’s decision. “It’s a disappointment,” said Patrice Spinosi of the LDH, the Human Rights League. “We haven’t succeeded in preventing it for this weekend. There will be consequences. And we’re going to appeal.”
Police specialists have weighed in against the rubber-bullet guns, comparing France’s stance unfavorably with that of other European countries — Austria, Norway, Finland, Denmark, Britain and Germany for the most part, among others — that ban the weapon.
“From the medical point of view there are good reasons not to use it,” said Sebastian Roché of the CNRS research institute. “And the countries that forbid them are the most thoroughgoing democracies.”
“It’s a question of democracy,” he said. “You can do better without these weapons. Look at Germany or Belgium.”
But Mr. Roché said the French judicial authorities would not go against the police unions.
Indeed, French television coverage Friday was dominated by police union representatives expressing satisfaction with the ruling.
Ms. Lubin, the Yellow Vest activist who attended Wednesday’s hearing, expressed fear and anger at the ruling. On Dec. 29 she passed out after a police officer fired a rubber bullet that struck her head during a demonstration at the Montpellier train station.
“I saw something dark, and I heard a noise,” she recalled. “I was 10 meters from him. I looked around, and I took the bullet, square in the forehead. I was stunned. I turned around and around. I was on the ground. Blood was coming out. I was on the ground. Then, the ‘street medics’ came to help me.”
She added: “Now, I am frightened every day. I sleep badly. This has shaken up our whole family.”
Orignially published in NYT.