French MPs are protesting police violence in Hong Kong. They should look closer to home

Protesters fight for vastly different causes, yet are faced with similar experiences of police’s tear gas, grenades and rubber bullet guns.

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French president Emmanuel Macron and MPs of his party La République En Marche (LREM) are not usually prone to vocally opposing police violence. Otherwise, one assumes, they would have spoken out about the yellow vest protesters who have lost eyes and hands to police weapons since January; or the Labour Day crowds who panicked and sought shelter in a hospital after a police charge in May; or the peaceful green activists who were aggressively doused with tear gas by police officers in June, as they held a sit-in in Paris; or the young dancer who died after a police operation in Nantes this summer. They did not. Macron said that it was “unacceptable” to use the term “police violence” under the rule of law. Most LREM MPs said nothing.

On 13 July, this changed: 20 LREM MPs signed an open letter calling for “political mobilisation” against police repression of protests, writing: “Any opposition or blindness to these emancipating crowds would turn their opponents into characters of the past.”

Seemingly unaware of the cynicism of such a letter in the current French social climate, they were not talking about protests at home, but about the recent riots in Hong Kong, where protests have been ongoing for months against China’s extradition bill. 

Both the French and Hong Kong protesters have denounced police violence and injuries (especially blinded eyes) by police weapons. Banners in Hong Kong have read: “Long live the yellow vest struggle”. They even share a taste for the French revolutionaries from Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables: in Hong Kong, protesters sang the Les Mis anthem (“Do you hear the people sing?”) during their blockade of the city’s airport. French yellow vests have paid tribute to the novel’s most famous character, the mischievous Gavroche, adapting his motto so “Voltaire’s fault” becomes incumbent French interior minister “Castaner’s”.

The MPs’ letter acknowledges that “in France, too, dissenting movement are forcing us to listen more, to debate more, to have more democracy”. But for almost a year now, LREM and the French government’s response to the yellow vests movement has been dismissive at best, and authorities have paid little attention to the growing anger against police violence. France is yet to address warnings from the UN, the Council of Europe, and Amnesty International regarding the “disproportionate” use of force, and the harmful use of rubber bullet guns in law enforcement operations. So it’s hardly surprising that many found the letter a little on the nose (activist groups crowned the leading signatory a “world champion”).

In Hong Kong, public shock over police violence has in part stemmed from the sudden brutality in a previously less violent police. The same cannot be said for France, where police violence is not a new debate. But French law enforcement wasn’t always so polemical, either. 

The last time France knew of large social movements leading to widespread riots, in May 1968, the choices made by the then Paris police chief, Maurice Grimaud, made a huge difference in avoiding violence in Parisian protests, says Arnaud Houte, a historian of the French armed forces. In a letter to police forces on 29 May 1968, at the movement’s highest point, Grimaud wrote: “To hit a protester who has fallen on the ground is to hit yourself, by exposing yourself in a light that hurts the entire police duty. (...) Every time illegitimate violence is perpetrated against a protester, dozens of his comrades will want to avenge him. This escalade has no limits.”

With this letter, Grimaud sent a clear message to the troops, Houte says: “He told them to calm down”. The current violent situation in France lacks such a firm hierarchy, and has already hurt the French police’s motto, “To serve and to protect” – most recently with the striking photo of a police officer strangling a much older man, who said he fainted from the attack. The man was targeted after he threw a glass bottle towards the police. “A Republican police must be able to receive blows without giving them back”, Houte says. 

But since the terrorist attacks on France in 2015, he added, the French police has demonstrated an “incapacity to nuance”, and the manichean vision of the police as heroes has slowly shifted from anti-terrorism to law enforcement, without a figure like Grimaud in 1968 to set proper limits. What has changed in the last few years, Houte says, is the way the French authorities have protected the police, including by covering up their errors: “This can lead the police to lose sight of the limits, whereas what a Republican police is defined by its capacity to respect them.”

The only way forward, Houte says, is communication: the police hierarchy must part with the dissymmetrical vision of the “good police versus the bad protesters”. Houte doubts that interior minister Christophe Castaner, who has been dismissive of French police violence, has the political weight to change the current discourse. He is unlikely to suddenly get inspired by Grimaud and lecture the police on peaceful, and less short-sighted, law enforcement techniques. 

But perhaps other authority figures – say, for instance, MPs from the parliamentary majority – could use their own political weight to do so. “The more political mobilisation, the more the Chinese government will pay attention”, the LREM MP who wrote the letter said about Hong Kong. Remove the word “Chinese”, and you have an effective plan to oppose police repression in any country, including the one where Gavroche was born.

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