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Paris Yellow vests and police

For more than six months, since November 2018, French police has been anticipating street actions of Yellow vests with shockingly disproportionate pressure. Harshly attacked with teargas and truncheons, wounded with flash-balls, simply provoked and humiliated persons bringing yellow vests do not «pay» their unacceptable conduct. They often receive a violent treatment before and beside any particular act, as a «preventive» measure intended to intimidate and dissipate.

Police and Yellow vests in Paris

For many who follow news at a distance, it is hard to believe that police easily leaves legal ground in France, the «country of human rights». There is nothing incorrect in this feeling. Even those who regularly participate in street rallies and testimony or personally stand the acts of police violence hardly believe in what is happening in their view. Interviewing Yellow vests, I receive quite often shock and doubt in their reactions of such events. «Are we in France here?!» exclaim some. «I just cannot believe it is happening!» acknowledge the others. «We arrived to a state of dictatorship, there is just no other words for that!» my interlocutors assert pretty often.

Leaving a metro station in Paris downtown just to heavily choke with teargas, finding yourself subject to personal bodily search by policemen at a large distance from the rally, getting a punch of truncheon in passing just because a policeman didn’t find useful to explain his intentions, you are naturally put into a state of distrust. In fact, you are oscillating in between two states, the one of immediate indignation and the one of normalizing negation, just next to it. In the middle of your rightful activity or even in your usual city life, you are suddenly immersed into an arbitrary and nonetheless banalized pressure. You wish to oppose yourself to it, you react. You immediately receive another portion of violence. And you just don’t believe it is happening without any special notice, without red signs «caution!» marking the perimeter of routinized humiliation. Still it is happening, and you are in France, and you need to cope with that together with others.

Yellow vests and police in Paris

It is an especially difficult task when the situation of unlawful police acts is not widely recognized. Media speak much more frequently on the violent protest, but not on aggressive treatment of protesters and passers-by by the police that became regular. The policemen don’t feel themselves embarrassed when you claim them to make visible their personal registration number which permits to identify them in case of issues and that they almost never put on their chest. Very much like in the Russian 2000s. French Ministry of interior patently negates the facts of arbitrary and violent conduct exercised by policemen. At the same time, numbers collected non-officially make your view oscillate between the same shock and distrust: 2448 injured persons, 10000 detained for 48 hours of which 2000 got legal sentences during six months. Is it imaginable they all committed violations heavy enough to be punished as violent criminals on place and in the courtroom? The negative reply naturally finds itself in the disproportionate police pressure.

Yellow vests and police in Paris

Hundreds of complaints officially deposed by injured persons are shelved or simply ignored when possible. Mainstream media often start their reports and analysis from the point where the protesters broke or burnt something, without making any account of what had happened earlier, and which role the police had taken in a «sudden» flare up. Opponents’ rejection of the protest modalities and of the protest itself obscures the major issues of the police’s behaviour that with no doubt will target them (and us all) on the next step of that involution, as it is already happening during the transfer of unlawful police practices from the «problem» outskirts to the center of large French cities.

Yellow vests and police in Paris

And here I finally arrive to my point. In the Act (Week) XXVIII of the Yellow vest protest, street actions turned back to the very downtown. Luxury districts surrounding Champs-Élysées were flooded… no, not by the angry crowd in yellow vests, but by shockingly massive police in all its forms. Looking around at some streets you might easily imagine yourself a part of a new Star Wars episode. Small groups of protesters who decided this time not to wear yellow vests, were straying in the surroundings chanting «We are here! We are here!» In front of them the weight of the police was simply incommensurate. As usual, the policemen were ordering the passers-by where to go and where to stop, they were «securing» sidewalks simply pushing people with their shields, they were spraying teargas in order to dissolve those small protesting groups, with no concern about children and inhabitants who were numerous in the street in that sunny Saturday noon.

Yellow vests and police in Paris

Aside the disproportionate and thus already provocative presence, aside the banalized rudeness and henceforth usual incivility in such mixed civil environment, one might witness quite spectacular scenes. For example, a group of policemen in civilian, with orange armbands, was forcing two young men to trample ski masks they brought to protect their eyes from teargas. The policemen were accompanying that authority performance with didactic gestures of good teachers, unconscious of the fact at which point their small show served another expression of the whole setting doctrine which may be designated as the infallible arbitrariness of the force.

Yellow vests and police in Paris

Meanwhile everyday activities of a «good» district are in their high tide. Mothers go out with their children, families and friends meet in the cafés, people go shopping, bicycles and scooters are in an extensive use. Many neighbourhood spectators are impressed with the whole show. They are not necessarily shocked not being a part of the protest and still believing that police protects citizens. Some film with their cellular phones, and they bring more often clear signs of preoccupation in their gestures. Some just gaze at the unparalleled «extraterrestrial» performance in the luxury neighbourhoods. Singular persons do jogging, crossing over spaces where teargas has been sprayed out. Life goes on.

Yellow vests and police in Paris

Teargas produces a paradoxical unifying effect, as it reaches everyone disregarding their acts and social standing. In spite of this fact, solidarity is not always there. There is still much space for a belief that those scenes in the city centre are just accidental, the protest will end sooner or later, and police will turn back to the «problem» outskirts, drawing back there routinized humiliation and violence.

Yellow vests and police in Paris

However a dozen of details and the whole logic of that social and geographic shift of police’s arbitraryness from urban periphery to the centre lets doubt it. The police that massively breaks professional codes, the one that perceives the whole city as a crime scene, the one that accustoms itself to treat a wide range of civil interactions as a muscled control of «bad guys», and the one that is not institutionally controlled in return or sanctioned for those infractions, changes its function and character. That happens precisely in the same way as it previously happened in some other societies, Russia included. Strangely enough for France, today it is time to admit that no one is safe when a group of policemen is crossing your way.

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