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25 September 2019

How French police brutality is harming the country’s international image

Violent treatment of protesters is deterring tourists and undermining France’s reputation as the birthplace of human rights.  

By Pauline Bock

Tourists dream about many things when they think of Paris. The lights of the Eiffel Tower, admired from a romantic boat trip on the river Seine; croissants and coffee for breakfast; long flâneries down Haussmannien boulevards. What they certainly don’t expect from a trip to the French capital is to be doused with tear gas on the Champs-Elysées — despite it having become a rather common French experience in the past year.

On 21 September, as gilets jaunes (yellow vest) protesters assembled for their 45th consecutive weekly protest, and joined forces with the climate march, clashes erupted with the police in Paris. Amid the chaos, several tourists walking on the Champs-Elysées (who spoke English to the press but did not say where they were from) were violently sprayed with tear gas by the police despite repeated attempts to explain that they were simply trying to reach their car. One man told French TV: “He [the police officer] sprayed [tear gas] directly into our faces. After we said we were just walking toward the car. Directly into our faces.”

This scene has become increasingly common since the start of the yellow vest movement in November 2018: the authorities ban protests in a protected area (in this instance, the Champs-Elysées), protesters assemble there regardless in the name of their right to march, the police therefore have the right to respond with violence; and people inevitably get harmed, sometimes with life-changing injuries. 

It’s not the first time passersby have suffered collateral damage: in Strasbourg a teenager lost an eye from a police rubber gun injury in January; in Marseille an elderly woman died of injuries caused by the same type of police weapon in December 2018. But this time, although far less dramatic, the damage was done to visiting foreigners. The French police certainly didn’t leave them with a nice memory of their Paris trip. 

Despite the government’s careful presentation of France as an economically attractive country, the “birth nation of human rights” is fast losing its tourism appeal and radiance on the international stage, due in no small part to the recent deluge of images of police brutality. Paris, specifically, where police-protester confrontations have been most violent, has been damaged: tourism in the region has slowed since the start of the yellow vest movement and the city has fallen six ranks in the Economist’s 2019 Global Liveability Index, which noted: “Paris in France is the highest-ranked city to have seen a deterioration in its stability score, owing to the ongoing anti-government gilets jaunes protests that began in late 2018.” 

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Even the American singer Iggy Pop, who recently played in Paris, has referenced the violent escalation in French law enforcement. He told French media that he had followed “what is happening with the police” over the controversial death of Steve Maia Caniço, who drowned in Nantes in June after a police charge. “More and more, we see that political leaders refuse dialogue,” he said. Not exactly Macron-approved PR.

Despite violent episodes, 15,000 climate activists marched in Paris on 21 September, calling on disparate protest groups to join forces. By repressing climate marches with the same brutality they demonstrated towards the yellow vests, the French police will only reinforce cooperation between the movements. President Macron attracted global praise with his promise to “Make the planet great again” and drew business interest with his call to “Choose France”. But as the French police become the only European force to shower tourists, climate activists and protesters with tear gas, both his slogans seem to be falling apart.