The United Nations has launched an inquiry into the use of excessive violence towards protesters, citing France during the gilets jaunes protests as an example, alongside Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Haiti.
The “in-depth investigation” was announced by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights this week (Wednesday March 6).
France is the only developed nation on the list.
At a speech in Geneva, high commissioner Michelle Bachelet, former president of Chile, said that the “gilet jaunes [had protested against what] they considered as the marginalisation of their economic rights and participation in public affairs”.
She said: “Inequalities affect all countries. Even in rich states, people feel excluded from the benefits of development, and shut out from economic and social rights.”
Police violence has been condemned by the gilets jaunes protesters almost since the beginning of the movement in November 2018.
The situation escalated after a man named Jérôme Rodrigues – seen by some as one of the leaders of the movement – lost the use of his right eye after being injured by a law enforcement officer during a protest in Paris.
Police use of weapons such as tear gas, water cannon, and defence ball launchers (LBDs) has been particularly controversial.
Between 20-100 people have claimed to have been seriously injured due to police actions since the start of the protests – including at least five who claim to have lost a hand, and others an eye.
Unions have called for LBD use to be banned entirely.
The Council of Europe and the independent French human rights authority, le Défenseur des Droits Jacques Toubon, also called for a suspension in LBD use, due to their “danger” and to “better respect human rights”.
The French government has rejected these claims, saying that the gilets jaunes protests had “made it necessary to allow law enforcement to have recourse to these weapons”.
On Thursday this week (March 7), the Senate debated a proposal to ban the use of LBDs, but commentators suggest that the text is unlikely to be voted through.
But the “inquiry” by the United Nations has been described as more of a “symbolic request”, and a targeted reminder to the French authorities to be alert to the alleged police violence.
UN special reporter Michel Forst, has said: “The demand by the UN echoes a demand by several special reporters to France, for in-depth enquiries into police violence. This persistent questioning by the international community should make France think twice.”
So far, the French government has responded with a terse statement from Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, who said: “Someone needs to explain to the high commissioner the extent of the extreme violence [against] law enforcement and public property.”
He added: “France is a law-abiding state. We have not been waiting for the high commission to shine a light on such actions as soon as there are complaints.”
Secretary of State to the PM, Benjamin Griveaux said: “I must say, I am surprised to find ourselves on a list between Venezuela and Haiti, where there have been deaths [due to force].”
Minister of the Interior, Christophe Castaner, tweeted a response to the UNHCR, asking: “France has been listed…between Haiti (41 deaths) and Venezuela (where [president] N. Maduro is refusing humanitarian aid for his own people).
“Is this reasonable? French people [are allowed] to express themselves every day in our Grand Débat. We are already investigating the issue of police violence.”
So far, the French police investigation service l’Inspection Générale de la Police (IGPN) has opened 111 inquiries into “9,228 uses of LBDs”, according to a report from January 30, cited by Mr Philippe.