French police officer faces judge over 'yellow vest' violence

by Alice LEFEBVRE
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Riot police officers faced off against demonstrators during a "yellow vest" protest in Nantes, western France, on November 16

A French police officer was to appear in court Thursday on charges he hurled a paving stone at protesters during a "yellow vest" rally, the first member of the security forces to face trial after a wave of claims of police violence during the weekly protests.

The court hearing comes just days after the first anniversary of the anti-government rallies, which were again marked by clashes with police and vandalism in Paris last Saturday.

Demonstrators accuse police of using brutal tactics to suppress the movement, in particular the use of heavy rubber bullets that activists say have cost some two dozen people to lose an eye.

The fierce violence that flared during the protests earlier this year shocked many in France and made headlines worldwide, as rioters ran amok burning cars while facing off against police firing tear gas, stun grenades and water cannon.

Paris prosecutors have signalled 212 cases of alleged police violence to the IGPN police oversight body, of which 18 are being examined by investigating magistrates to decide is there is enough evidence to press charges.

The officer on trial Thursday was captured on video heaving a paving stone toward a crowd during a May Day rally in Paris, a scene which quickly went viral on social media.

The brigadier, a member of France's elite CRS riot-control police based in the southwestern city of Toulouse, faces charges of "deliberate violence by a person in a position of public authority."

- 'Fury' -

The officer's lawyer, Laurent Boguet, told AFP he would seek to have the charges dropped, not least because no plaintiff has come forward in the case.

"We can't just overlook the fury officers had to confront during several hours that day," he told AFP.

Just minutes after the scene caught on video by an independent journalist, the officer's commander had been struck in the face by a paving stone and later hospitalised.

The video does not show where the stone landed, or if it injured someone.

Another officer is set to stand trial in the coming weeks for allegedly slapping a protester in the face without warning during the same May 1 protest in Paris, a scene also caught on video.

Activists say that in addition to blinded eyes, five yellow vest protesters lost a hand due to stun grenades, and one a testicle, while dozens of others have sustained other injuries.

The protests erupted on November 17 last year over a planned fuel tax increase, which quickly snowballed into a general revolt against President Emmanuel Macron's policies.

His critics accused the former investment banker of failing to take into account the daily struggles of rural and small-town France.

Although the Saturday protests have faded in recent months, Macron is facing a major strike called by unions for December 5 against planned pension reforms, which could be bolstered by yellow vest support.

Riot police officers faced off against demonstrators during a "yellow vest" protest in Nantes, western France, on November 16, 2019.

The fierce violence that flared over the past year during the protests shocked many in France and made headlines worldwide