How an elderly female protester became a symbol of defiance against Macron’s repression

Geneviève Legay was left with a fractured skull and five broken ribs after apparently being pushed by French police. 

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As French president, Emmanuel Macron has used contemptuous phrases to address factory workers, a teenager who greeted him as “Manu”, a young jobless man looking for work, the French people as a whole, and many more. But until this week he had more or less spared the elderly.

This changed after Geneviève Legay, 73, an activist from Nice acting as spokeswoman for the anti-capitalist group Attac France, was severely injured during the gilets jaunes’​ (yellow vests) “Act 19” last Saturday. She was marching peacefully with Attac and in support of the yellow vests on Nice’s Garibaldi square when the police closed in on protesters and she fell violently to the ground. Images of the march show that she was left to bleed on the pavement after injuring her head while police stepped over her body to chase after protesters.

“I wish her a quick recovery,” Macron said on Monday, “and I also wish her more wisdom. A fragile person, who is at risk of being pushed down, shouldn’t go to unauthorised marches or put themselves in such a situation.” He also noted that she “had not been in direct contact with the police” before she fell.

Macron has long mastered the art of turning insults into gentle advice, but this instance grated. Legay, her daughters said, is not a fragile elderly woman. Interviewed by French TV's CNEWS just moments before her fall, she described herself as “an ecologist, feminist, anti-racist activist” while waving a rainbow flag which she called her “flag of peace”. She added: “We are here to demonstrate our right to protest”, regretting that the decision from the authorities to ban the protest had not been advertised anywhere and laughing about the loud chants that she and fellow activists had led to cover the police’s calls for retreat. Explaining that she had gone to speak with police officers, Legay hoped that she “touched their hearts ... they too are human beings, they just are doing dirty work.” 

Asked if she was afraid of police violence, she replied: “I’m 73, what could happen to me?” Legay is now in hospital with a fractured skull and five broken ribs.

The week before her fall, violent protesters burned shops and restaurants in Paris, which prompted the French government to intensify repression — introducing sanctions, banning protests in several places, and even deploying the military as security guards. There were ultimately no major clashes in Paris but the repressive climate is creating new dangers. Activists such as Legay — whatever their age and level of wisdom — are caught in the middle. Emergency rescuers in Nice were not only barred from helping Legay, who was bleeding on the ground, they were mixed up with protesters and arrested. “We were prevented from rescuing people”, one told local TV.

Is there a better image of a government spiralling into repression than a peaceful 73-year-old protester lying on the ground in her own blood as police advance around her to suppress the rest of the march?

The cause of Legay’s fall has led to controversy. Macron immediately concluded that the police were not to blame, as did the Nice prosecutor who, at a press conference where he announced the opening of an investigation, also declared that Legay was not touched by the police (which rather defeats the purpose of said investigation). “What we are certain about, after closely looking at the footage, is that she has not been touched by the police,” he said. “The officer stepping over her did not cause her fall, she was already on the ground.” 

But when French media outlets Libération and AFP took a closer look, they drew radically different conclusions. By comparing footage, both found that Legay fell at the exact moment the police closed in on protesters — and that a protester holding a yellow vest in her hand, as in previous images, was pushed by an officer. “If the office didn’t directly push her, the only other hypothesis is that he pushed someone who then caused her to fall”, Libération concluded.

Médiapart, the French online investigative title, revealed last night that, contrary to Macron and the authorities, a police report drafted on the day of Legay's fall concluded that “a man with a shield” (almost certainly a police officer) pushed her down. 

Five days after the protest, the news is disquieting. Attac France said on Wednesday that Legay's situation was “not getting better” and that they remained “worried” about her. Her lawyer has accused the police of having visited Legay in hospital to persuade her to say that she was pushed by a journalist, not an officer. Attac has joined Legay’s family in filing a complaint of voluntary violence by public authorities against a vulnerable person. “Attac France condemns the repression of peaceful marches that were held on Saturday and is outraged by the severe restriction of civil liberties”, the group said in a statement. “Repression and police violence are not the answer. Emmanuel Macron should address the rightful demands for social justice that are being expressed all across the country.”

Macron and other officials, Attac member Raphaël Prado said, “are claiming the police is innocent, whereas footage shows that is isn’t clear. It’s worrying for democracy.” He warned that the truth around Legay’s fall might shine light on “police violence and lies from the authorities”, and added: “Macron will not solve this crisis with repression. This is a political movement, the only response must be political measures.”

France recently pondered whether to represent its muse, the mighty Marianne, with the features of the great politician-philosopher Simone Veil. For my part, when I think of the symbolic French figure, I will now picture Geneviève Legay: a proud and fearless 73-year-old, waving a rainbow flag, laughing in the face of the cowards who confuse repression with democracy.

Pauline Bock is a New Statesman contributing writer based in Brussels. She writes about Brexit, the EU, France and the Macron presidency. 

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