French officer tried for anti-yellow vest violence

Alice LEFEBVRE
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Violence flared during the May 1 yellow vest demonstrations

A French policeman appeared in court Thursday for hurling a paving stone at protesters during a "yellow vest" rally, the first member of the security forces to face trial after numerous allegations of police brutality during the weekly protests.

The case comes just days after the first anniversary of the anti-government rallies, which were again marked by rioting and vandalism last Saturday.

It is the first arising from 212 cases of alleged police brutality being investigated by the IGPN police oversight body.

Demonstrators accuse police of using excessive force to suppress the movement, in particular the use of rubber bullets which activists say have caused some two dozen people to lose an eye.

Around 2,500 demonstrators and 1,800 security force members have been injured since the protests began, according to an official count.

The 44-year-old officer on trial Thursday was caught on camera in the act of throwing the stone at the May 1 protest in Paris. The video did not show where the stone landed or if anyone was hit.

The prosecution Thursday asked for the officer to receive a three-month suspended jail sentence for "deliberate violence by a person in a position of public authority".

In an emotional statement to the court, the accused said he acted "out of fear", not anger, because his commanding officer was struck in the face by a paving stone and badly injured.

He said he threw the stone "to create some distance for security", but that he "didn't want to hurt anyone."

"No matter the result when the defendant threw that paving stone he couldn't be unaware that he could cause serious injuries," the prosecutor said.

The SGP police union has accused the judiciary of trying to make a "scapegoat" of him and argued that he had acted in self-defence.

His lawyer Laurent Boguet told the court that May 1 was a "very violent day" on which police had come under attack from stone-throwing protesters.

The judge in the case said the video clips were "harmful" to the image of the police while at the same time noting the "aggressive crowd" and the "shock of stone-throwing" at the demonstration.

A verdict in the case will be announced on December 19.

- Eyes and limbs lost -

The fierce violence that flared during the protests last winter made headlines worldwide, with rioters running amok in Paris and other cities, smashing shopfronts, torching cars and looting businesses.

Yellow vest protests in rural France have been relatively peaceful, by contrast.

The riot police officer on trial in Paris is from a unit based in the southwestern city of Toulouse that was sent to the capital as backup.

His lawyer moved to have the charges dropped, noting that no plaintiff had come forward in the case.

Another officer is set to stand trial in the coming weeks for slapping a protester in the face during the same May 1 protest, a scene also caught on video.

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

On Saturday, another demonstrator lost an eye after being hit in the face, apparently by a police tear gas canister. A video showed him standing in a group talking when he was struck.

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 ignoring the daily struggles of the working poor in rural and small-town France.

Although the Saturday protests have fizzled in strength 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.