French police under fire for yellow vest protest violence

French police under fire for yellow vest protest violence
PARIS - Is France cracking down too hard on yellow vest protesters? A top European human rights official thinks so, joining other critics decrying the use of high-velocity rubber projectiles against unruly demonstrators and a draft law that could limit people’s right to protest.

French authorities say police are facing an increasingly radicalized movement, including a violent fringe intent on attacking security forces. More than 2,000 people, including protesters and police, have been injured during yellow vest demonstrations since they started in November over economic problems.

Concerned about the police reaction to the protests, Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Dunja Mijatovic came to Paris this week to meet with French officials.

She acknowledged the pressures the police are under but expressed particular worry about extensive injuries caused by the use of rubber ball launchers and other methods to disperse yellow vest protesters. Several protesters have reported serious injuries from being hit by the balls.

“The high level of tension currently prevailing in France gives me cause for concern and I believe that there is an urgent need to calm the situation,” Mijatovic said in a statement Wednesday.

She also warned of dangers in a bill currently under debate in the French parliament aimed at cracking down on troublemakers who use protests to attack police.

The bill, championed by French President Emmanuel Macron’s government, has been criticized by rights groups, opposition members and even members of Macron’s centrist party as going too far in restricting freedoms.

The bill could authorize prefects in charge of local regions to prevent people from taking part in protests if they believe they are a serious threat to public order. It could also force protesters involved in acts of violence to pay for the damage and make it a crime for protesters to conceal their faces during demonstrations.

Mijatovic said the bill should not “result in any unnecessary or disproportionate restriction of the freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly.”

The yellow vest protests started Nov. 17 over a rise in fuel taxes but mushroomed into a grassroots anti-government movement with a range of demands. Momentum appeared to flag at the most recent round of weekend protests Saturday, amid divisions in the movement and as Macron pursues a national debate meant to respond to protesters’ concerns. However, anger at the police crackdown remains strong.
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