A year on, the gilets jaunes have lost 24 eyes and five hands – and made a deep mark on French society

Now approaching its first anniversary, the movement has brought public attention to the threat posed by police violence.

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Last weekend, at the Paris march marking the one-year anniversary of the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) movement, a protester was blinded in one eye by a tear gas canister, which was thrown directly at him. 

The protester, named in the media as “Manu” from Valenciennes in northern France, was chatting with others on Paris’s Place d’Italie when he was hit in the eye, which it was later confirmed he lost. “I am angry, revolted,” his partner, Séverine, told French TV. “I don’t understand how people can lose an eye for protesting peacefully in the hope of a better life.”

Although the video does not show a police officer throwing the canister, the object originated from the armed forces, which commonly douse protesters with tear gas.

The number of people who have lost an eye during protests in France in the last year now stands at 24. This is as well as five lost hands, 315 head injuries (including fractured jaws and skulls) and two deaths, according to a fact-checked count for Médiapart. Zineb Redouane, 81, died on 2 December 2018 in Marseilles, of injuries from a grenade thrown from the street that landed in her flat during a gilets jaunes march. Steve Maïa Caniço, 24, drowned on 24 June 2019 in the Loire river in Nantes, after a violent police charge at the concert he was attending led to dozens of people falling in the river. Steve couldn’t swim.

No one predicted the uprising of the gilets jaunes. When hundreds of thousands took to the streets and blocked roundabouts in protest of President Emmanuel Macron’s free-market policies in November and December last year, the armed forces and the government alike were taken by surprise. Protesters and human rights bodies alike have since warned about the “disproportionate” use of force in the French authorities’ response to the gilets jaunes and other social movements. 

Relatively few yellow vests continue to march on Saturdays – there were 28,000 across France last week, compared to over 280,000 at the movement’s peak – but their revolt has had long-term consequences on French politics, especially law enforcement.

At Paris’s Place d’Italie last weekend, protesters reported a very violent nasse, or “hoop-net”, a police tactic that “traps” protesters in a closed-off area, which is then doused with tear gas. Mathilde Larrère, a historian who attended the march, said she had witnessed an unjustifiable level of “repression” for a democratic state and described her experience of the police tactic. “The level of stress is extreme. You’re afraid of being blinded in the eye, you’ve been breathing tear gas for hours, you’re scared of being hit in the head, you have no idea what to do.”

Euronews filmed a distressed woman, crying in the middle of the protest, who declared that she “couldn’t take any more of this”. Alongside Manu, whose eye was punctured, a freelance journalist was also severely injured in the face by a grenade — which contains TNT and should only be launched from the ground, not thrown at protesters. “This law enforcement strategy is aimed at terrorising us,” a protester who was at Place d’Italie wrote on Facebook.

A few days before the gilets jaunes’s first anniversary march (or “act 53” of their weekly protests), French newspaper Libération reported that the interior ministry was set to approve a “new national plan for law enforcement” that supports the police’s harsh, aggressive tactics for crowd control — despite the hundreds of injuries this approach has caused.

An observer for Amnesty International said that the police had used a “repressive strategy” and showed “an excessive use of force” over the last year and at the most recent Paris march. “There were broken jaws, punctured eyes, head traumas (...) Some victims were not even protesters. Journalists were also targeted.” Manu, the protester hit in the eye, “was not committing any criminal act, so the use of force was unnecessary, disproportionate and illegal,” she added. That the French police have doubled down on these tactics was “beyond comprehension,” she said.

Authorities have condemned gilets jaunes protesters for material damages, some of which have been highly symbolic, such as the ransacking of the Arc de Triomphe, or the fire that destroyed the luxury Parisian restaurant Fouquet’s, or the recent vandalising of a statue of a French general. Protesters riposte that they have suffered physical violence of a different nature: Fouquet’s can (and has been) rebuilt, but no money can replace their lost limbs, they say.

“A man who loses an eye, a hand, what can they do, how do they earn a living? What am I going to become now?” Jérôme Rodrigues, a gilets jaune who lost an eye to police weapons has said. His loss, unlike the already erased graffiti on the Arc de Triomphe, is forever. 

The “spiral violence” theory, developed by Brazilian writer Hélder Pessoa Câmara, has found resonance among gilets jaunes. “There are three kinds of violence,” Câmara wrote in 1971. “The first, mother of all others, is structural violence, which legalises and perpetuates domination, oppression and exploitation. The second is revolutionary violence, which stems from the will to abolish the first. The third is repressive violence, which aims to suffocate the second in supporting the first. There is no greater hypocrisy than calling ‘violence’ only the second one and pretending to forget the first, which births it, and the third, which kills it.”

How does France escape this frightening spiral of violence? No protester, police officer or minister – and certainly not Macron, who, facing potentially explosive opposition to his latest reforms, has claimed he will not change course – seem to have a clue. 

In view of their dwindling numbers, it’s unlikely the gilets jaunes will remain a threat to the government, but the movement has brought public attention to police violence and the threat it poses to the French right of assembly. By occupying Starbucks and shopping malls throughout the year to denounce capitalism, the gilets jaunes have triggered a wider conversation on social and environmental justice. “Let’s destroy what destroys us,” declared a banner displayed in Paris’s Galeries Lafayette last weekend. They occupied the building, chanting anti-capitalist slogans, while some Galeries Lafayette employees expressed support for the protest.

poll last week found that 69 per cent of the French believe the gilets jaunes movement is still “justified”. This support could be demonstrated through a planned mass strike on 5 December, as many trade unions predict, or through another social movement. It could turn into nothing at all. But it is a signal that the gilets jaunes have left a deep mark on the French public debate; one that will remain after the last marcher has deserted the streets.  

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