Chris Myant – France: War of Images in Paris

Like the Gilets jaunes the authorities hope to grind this coalition down by police intimidation, scare stories of violence and the appearance of concessions.

Chris Myant started as a journalist in 1968 working for the Morning Star and then 7Days. He later worked for the Commission for Racial Equality and Equality and Human Rights Commission. For the last decade he has lived in Paris where he is active in the National Union of Journalists.

Cross-posted from Open Democracy

There are lies, damned lies and Gérald Darmanin. Mid-afternoon on Saturday, December 12, France’s Minister of the Interior tweeted out a figure of those arrested at a Paris demonstration against his Loi de sécurité globale. Eighty-one people had been detained. The police, he explained, had had to deal with “ultra-violent individuals”. By the end of the day he was triumphantly announcing that the total of those held by the police had gone up to 142.

What he gave no figure on was the number of demonstrators struck, tripped, thrust to the ground, repeatedly truncheoned or, in the case of some, sprayed directly in the face with pepper gel while lying on the ground

The 24-hour news channels had given us long moments of completely pacific demonstrators moving towards the Place de la Republique with rows of police in front, rows alongside them on the pavements and more behind, followed by columns of police vehicles. There were thousands – not many, many thousands – but a dignified 5,000 at least, quite likely more.

Across the rest of France there were dozens of rallies and demonstrations called by the coalition of journalists’ trade unions, media professional bodies and civil liberties groups. Some were not much more than symbolic statements of opposition by a few individuals, others were much bigger. Like the Gilets jaunes on the roundabouts this time two years ago, this is a movement that threatens to snowball. Like the Gilets jaunes the authorities hope to grind it down by police intimidation, scare stories of violence and the appearance of concessions.

The coalition had decided not to hold a march in Paris because of the violence imposed by the police over the previous three protests it had organised. Other organisations decided not to let the continuity slip. Those who responded were overwhelmingly young.

War of manoeuvre

At the very least, these protests have forced the government to stop and think about how to impose the restrictions it wants to get into law on the public’s right to highlight police violence. They have not yet proved strong enough to drive President Macron into abandoning them, but, combined with public horror at videos of police violence and racism, they have meant that he needs to manoeuvre rather than bulldoze.

In that game of cat and mouse with public opinion and public protest, how things are reported and filmed becomes a crucial part of the dance. According to the former senior police officer and now the one of President Macron’s deputies in parliament sponsoring the law, Jean-Michel Fauverge, the authorities need to “regain control in the war of images”.

Anyone who was bored by the inanity of the rest of Saturday evening tv (there being at that moment no repeat of an ageing Hollywood Western, a Clint Eastwood thriller or a passé French detective movie), anyone in search of a bit of excitement and tension could stay with the live coverage of the Paris demo while the police treatment of the march shifted from that of performing the role of unwanted chaperone to that of a rancher’s mob clearing the local homesteaders off the land.

You could savour the needless deployment of brute force, of water canon and truncheons which began almost as soon as that pacific mass, held up for a long while by serried ranks of riot police, was allowed to proceed into the square where its giant statue of La République could then form a convenient backdrop to tv film of police attacking demonstrators amid the gloom of advancing dusk and tear gas.

All this as solemn commentators – often ex-police officers now hired as media consultants – intoned repeatedly the claim that that this march had been, on the whole, a peaceful affair because the “forces of order” had acted swiftly at its beginning to nip in the bud any signs of violence.

Alternative media

Really? If that photo of a prone demonstrator being pepper sprayed does not convince you, go here and tell your neighbour just who are the “ultra-violent individuals” in this video clip. Look at it carefully as there are a lot of incidental details to keep in mind: the people injured having done nothing threatening and while doing nothing threatening, the repeated use of police truncheons, the aggression toward those with cameras and so on. By the end of Sunday, over 600,000 had viewed it. Which tells one something about the force of the new alternative media in France.

One thing that the clip helps us understand is the “preventive” nature of the police action. The official argument was that these arrests were part of a new strategy in which the police ploughed into the assembled demonstrators to “preventively” take out those who gave the “impression” of starting a “block”, that is to say one of the reputed “black-blocs” who have systematically caused trouble over the last five years but only at demonstrations by the trade unions or Gilets jaunes and never anywhere else.

The formula the Prefect of Police used was that they “intervened in the middle of the demonstration to prevent the creation of a group of violent black-blocs”.

There were none of these people there at the start of Saturday’s rally. How does one know? Because among the 142 arrests of “ultra-violent individuals” that so delighted Darmanin, only six made an appearance under comparution immediate in the courts on Monday. That is not to say they were guilty of anything – just that only against these six did the police think they could make some sort of case. Remember that all the violence you can see in these clips and photos takes place at the start of the rally. Think a moment about the patience and commitment to non-violence on the part of the demonstrators in the face of this provocation.

Look at another short clip from the same journalist you can find here. The individual is in a black jacket as he is hurried away by the police. But so he is in his normal working life as a lawyer.

Out there in the twittersphere you can see all sorts of messages of indignation or those that simply reported something similar to his experience:

QG Media put this out about one of their reporters detained until Monday:

The reporter Adrien Adcazz, of the media QG, has so far as he is concerned seen his GAV (garde à vue, detention in the hands of the police) prolonged this Sunday evening. ‘A completely abusive decision,’ denounced his lawyer David Libeskind. Around 4pm (on the Saturday) my client was lifted during a charge. He shouted ‘Journalist! Journalist!’

Attac, a movement promoting economic alternatives to austerity for the poor and tax breaks for the rich announced:

An Attac activist was placed in garde à vue this evening in Paris during the March for Liberties. Reason: face covered. He was just wearing a bonnet and a mask (against Covid-19).

From a parent:

My daughter was arrested yesterday though she was leaving the demonstration the police charged she filmed, an officer seized her and she was taken away. Several people testified that she had said nothing, offered no resistance but she is in GAV for “outrage”.

Another parent then immediately added:

My son Théo was also arrested right at the start of the demonstration, he is in GAV with your daughter, in the police station of the 20th arrondissement.

Claire, and Taha Bouhafs

A similar case that caught attention after the previous week’s rally, one that was effectively destroyed by a combination of police tear gas and black-bloc petty violence, is that of Claire. She is a 28-year-old single mother with a three year old child and an activist in the CGT trade union section for the unemployed. She was detained on Saturday 5 December accused of “rebellion” and carrying on the rally after it had ended. She was only let out on the Tuesday.

Luckily for her, she explained, videos showed her being dragged along the ground and beaten as opposed to the police case that she had kicked an officer while refusing to move.

It is these videos and photos that remain the central problem for Macron and his ministers in this on-going “war of images”. Go back to those two video clips and you may have noticed that the journalist filming them is a young student who describes himself on his Twitter account as a “journalist (still) in training”. Watch one of the videos again and you see that there are several moments when there are more young activist journalists with cameras facing the police than there are police on the screen.

In France, a journalist is defined in the law of 1881 on the freedom of the press as a permanent salaried employee. Few of these journalists fit that definition. An argument around this has just now divided Reporters sans frontiers, Reporters without Borders. It has refused to recognise someone like Taha Bouhafs as a real journalist and so take part alongside the unions in defending him against police harassment. It was Taha Bouhafs who caught on video Macron’s personal minder Alexandre Benalla roughing up and “arresting” demonstrators on May Day back in 2018, a few seconds of video that have caused the President his biggest personal crisis yet.

Bizarrely, RSF has this month launched a new video campaign using the slogan “Reality only exists if someone reports it” saying that “it aims to help viewers appreciate journalism’s importance in enabling people to understand issues that are decisive for the future and to take action.” The campaign is financially supported by the French government’s development agency and all the issues illustrated are from outside France.

The idea that journalists like Bouhafs are somehow not authentic is already there in the revised rules on handling public order issued by Darmanin in September. These would enable those holding “official” French press cards to notify the police of their presence at any rally and so be “protected” by the “forces of order”. The unions want these rules dumped along with the Loi sécurité globale and its article 24 aimed at stopping films of police violence.

Angry reporters

Macron’s manoeuvring might include parking article 24, but it also includes introducing further dangerous measures. Darmanin, for instance, has just issued Décret Number 2020-1511. This modifies a section of the French Internal Security Code covering the collection of personal data allowed under its section on “Prevention of harm to public security”. The security service will now record “political opinions, philosophical or religious convictions or trade union membership”.

At the end of the day on Saturday, Darmanin tweeted Force est resté à la loi, Power has remained with the law, his way of making sure we all understand what lies behind that new decree and article 24.

Several of those whose arrests he celebrated, had been seized, often with brutality, for just filming the police. One was a reporter from Reporters en Colère, Angry Reporters. One shares the feeling.

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