“I need one thing,” French president Emmanuel Macron told young climate activists at the Elysée Palace in June. “It’s for you to make life impossible for us leaders.”
Days later, images went viral of Extinction Rebellion (XR) activists being tear-gassed in the face and at close range by police. They had blocked a central Paris bridge. France was in the midst of a record-breaking heatwave with temperatures of more than 45C.
On the international stage, Macron has pitched himself (and been recognised by the UN) as a climate champion. He has said he will “make climate great again” by working alongside different political and business leaders as well as activists. At the UN climate action summit last month, Macron urged world leaders to “engage with the youth to go faster” in taking climate action.
But in France, hundreds who have answered Macron’s call for climate agitators have met with police violence or been dragged into court.
XR’s bridge blockade was in response to a report by the country’s independent High Council for the Climate. It warned France’s current policies were just one third of what was needed to reach Macron’s stated ambition of net zero carbon by 2050. The French Human Rights League, which was acting as an observer on the day of the protest, denounced the “normalisation” of tear gas as a policing measure, “even when the situation is peaceful and calm”.
This is occurring against the backdrop of the year-old gilets jaunes protests, which have been countered ferociously by police leaving nearly 4,500 injured on both sides, according to the most conservative police figures. Some lost an eye, a hand or a foot after being hit by police flash-balls. UN high commissioner for human rights Michelle Bachelet has ordered an investigation into the “excessive use of force” deployed by the French state against the gilets jaunes.
For Sébastien Bailleul, director of the French environmental and social justice charity Crid, the use of violence to repress protests has become a systematic government strategy that is bleeding across all forms of protest.
“There is a real authoritarian slide in France and what has emerged from the tip of the iceberg is police violence,” he told Climate Home News. “This is a strategy of fear and of quelling and the climate movement is now on the frontline.”
Last month, Bailleul joined a march for climate and social justice in Paris with his five-year-old son Oscar. The authorised event was advertised as non-violent and family-friendly by organisers, and boasted musicians, giant puppets and colourful placards. Some gilets jaunes joined the demonstration and protesters chanted: “End of the world, end of the month, same struggle!”.
Within an hour, anarchist “black blocs” had emerged at the front of the procession, vandalising property and confronting police. The police moved in, throwing sting-ball grenades and tear gas into all parts of the march.
The black-shirted aggressors were not the only targets. Célia Gautier, who was nine months pregnant, was forced to run from the scene. She told CHN she joined what she “thought was a non-violent, family-oriented rally… But police repression and violent groups prevented me from using my freedom of speech,” she said.
On Twitter, Greenpeace urged people to leave the march, adding that the “conditions for a non-violent protest were not being met” by police. Bailleul and Oscar were able to get out. But authorities blocked surrounding streets and many were unable to leave.
Brigitte Goglione was one. “There were families, we were just behind the musicians and we were singing. The crowd suddenly moved backwards,” she told CHN. “I went to the protest to save the planet and I got gassed,” she added. She had never been to a climate protest before.
The 21 September march will be remembered as the first time the police violently broke up an authorised climate protest, said Victor Vauquois, a climate activist and member of the video channel Partager c’est Sympa.
“In social protests, people are used to this kind of treatment by the police, but not in climate protests. People were really shocked, it was palpable,” he told CHN.
This is part of a widening repressive trend, Maxime Combes, a spokesperson for the anti-globalisation and environmental NGO Attac, told CHN. “Being gassed is no longer something that is simply reserved for the few dozen people that want to confront police forces and that is new in the way police forces are managing protests.”
In Paris last week, firefighters protesting against difficult working conditions were met with water canons and teargas after some clashes with the police.
Earlier this month, activists occupying a site in southern France to protest against the construction of a large-scale electric transformer on agricultural land were evicted with sting ball grenades and clouds of teargas by riot police.
— Midi Libre Millau (@MidiLibreMillau) October 8, 2019
These incidents have fuelled an ongoing debate about police violence in France, but perhaps the most disproportionate action against climate activists is happening in the courts.
Across the country, 59 climate activists are at various stages of 19 trials after they removed 133 official portraits of Macron from town halls across the country in protest against what they see as his inadequate action on climate change . The office of counter-terrorism operations was asked to contribute to the police investigation into the symbolic thefts.
This “judicial repression” has “gripped the climate movement”, said Corinne Morel Darleux, a left-wing regional councillor for the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes and a long-standing environmental activist.
The trials that have already returned judgements have been inconsistent. Last month, two of the portrait removers were given a reprieve when a judge in Lyon dismissed charges calling their protest a “necessary substitute for the impracticable dialogue between the president of the republic and the people”. Last week eight activists were fined €500 each by a Paris court.
With confrontation increasingly replacing dialogue between the government and climate activists, XR’s Autumn Uprising in October was expected by many to be a flashpoint and a potential repeat of the violence on the bridge in June. Protesters came equipped with wet wipes and saline tubes, in anticipation of police tear gas.
Instead, there was almost no response at all. Protesters set-up camp at Chatelet square, in the heart of Paris, for a whole week without being dislodged by police, despite obstructing some of the French capital’s busiest roads.
Amid France’s social turmoil, it was an aberration. “Why haven’t the police intervened? Is the question everyone is asking here,” Nathan Jousni, a climate protester said.
It’s not clear why the police were so accommodating compared to June. But Mathilde Larrère, a historian specialising in citizens’ movements and revolution, believes XR might erode Macron’s image as a “champion of the earth” but don’t undermine his presidency in the same way as movements challenging his social and economic policies.
“In general, the government adapts its actions accordingly to the people it is dealing with and to the situation: they let [protests] be so long as it doesn’t threaten them,” she said.
It has been when climate protesters have drawn together with gilets jaunes and anti-capitalists that the state has responded more harshly. Many gilets jaunes’ see climate action as central to their movement. Their protests initially called out the unfairness of an “eco-tax” on diesel and exposed the consequences of ignoring social justice when developing climate policy.
The convergence is deliberate and increasingly developing into a unified critique of the system of political and economic thought that produced Macron, a former banker and economic liberal. The September climate march was initially supposed to be a joint rally for climate and social justice, but the authorities refused to issue a permit.
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“The government doesn’t want to see an alliance of the two movements,” Gwénaelle Ménez, a member of the NGO network Alternatiba and one of the organisers of the September march told CHN. “But we cannot achieve an energy transition without taking into account the social impacts and that [idea] seems to be uncomfortable,” she added.
The alliance of two broad-church grassroots movements isn’t straightforward. Some gilets jaunes see the climate movement as lacking a radical social agenda, or being too middle class. But as discussions of a possible convergence mount, Combes said climate protesters and gilets jaunes “are finding they have something in common” in Macron’s France: “police repression”.
The French ministry of the interior declined to comment. Both the Elysée Palace and the Paris police said they wouldn’t comment and referred CHN to the ministry of the interior.
Main photo screenshot from footage by Clément Lanot for CLPRESSFR.