French police tactics at yellow vest protests under fire

PARIS (AP) — Is France cracking down too hard on yellow vest protesters? A top European human rights official thinks so, joining other critics decrying the police use of high-velocity rubber projectiles and a draft law that could local authorize local officials to prevent people from taking part in protests on public order grounds.

French authorities say police are facing an increasingly radicalized movement, one with a violent fringe intent on attacking security forces. More than 2,000 people, including protesters and police, have been injured since the yellow vest demonstrations 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.

Mijatovic acknowledged the pressures police forces are under but expressed particular worry about injuries from rubber ball launchers and other anti-riot methods used by police. 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 a civil rights threat in a bill currently under debate in the French parliament. The bill, championed by French President Emmanuel Macron’s government, is aimed at troublemakers who use protests to attack police.

Rights groups, opposition lawmakers and members of Macron’s centrist party have said the legislation goes too far in restricting the right of people to protest.

Initially proposed by a conservative lawmaker, the bill has since been amended to soften some measures seen as possibly endangering civil liberties.

Macron said Wednesday it is intended to help maintain public order.

The bill could authorize prefects in charge of local regions to prevent people they see as a serious threat to public order from taking part in protests.

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.

Amid divisions in the movement and Macron pursuing a national debate meant to respond to protesters’ concerns, momentum appeared to flag Saturday during the most recent protests.

However, anger over police tactics remains strong.