Last weekend in Nantes, western France, some 1,700 protesters gathered to march against police brutality.
They were met with clouds of tear gas.
It’s a common sight these days at protests across France, where law enforcement relies heavily on tear gas, grenades and rubber bullets fired by controversial launchers known as lanceurs de balles de défense, or LBDs, for crowd control.
The anti-establishment Yellow Jackets movement, which has led mass demonstrations against Emmanuel Macron’s reform efforts across the country since November, has been the most vocal critic of the authorities’ heavy-handed approach. Several dozen people have lost an eye or a hand as a result of police interventions.
Now, with the death of Steve Maia Caniço, a 24-year-old who drowned in the Loire River near his hometown of Nantes after a confrontation with police at a music festival, public anger at the police is spreading beyond the movement’s ranks.
Caniço disappeared on the night of June 21, after authorities used tear gas to disperse concert-goers whom the prefect of Nantes later claimed were “unmanageable” and had “probably taken drugs.” In the chaos, more than a dozen people fell into the river and were rescued. Caniço, who couldn’t swim, was not.
His name quickly became a battle cry across the country for critics of the French police’s methods. In the five weeks it took to locate his body, which was found in the river on July 29, the hashtag #OùestSteve (“Where is Steve”) trended on Twitter; Yellow Jackets shouted his name in Macron’s direction during the Bastille Day parade in Paris and chanted it during their weekly protests, which, despite dwindling numbers, carry on.
At a recent weekend protest for Caniço in Nantes, near where his body was found, protesters yelled “murderers!” at the police and threw projectiles. Some 42 people were arrested. “The police drowns people” was scrawled in graffiti on the walls.
Caniço’s family has distanced itself from calls for violence at marches held in his honor, but the anger isn’t easily contained. A group from Poitiers wrote on Facebook: “For Steve and all the youth killed by the police, we will set fire everywhere in France, especially in Nantes.” A poll published by Journal du Dimanche last week found that growing numbers of French people don’t trust the police and 20 percent are “troubled” by the authorities.
The Yellow Jackets in particular have seized on the incident.
Jérôme Rodrigues, a Yellow Jacket who was blinded by police weapons in January, attended one of the tributes to Caniço in Nantes. “He was a boy who came to dance. It could be your son, your cousin, your friend,” he said. “The common denominator is that we are victims of police violence. I lost my eye. Steve lost his life.”
But if there’s been a “resurgence of revolt” among the Yellow Jackets, the indignation has also spread to the wider public, said Cédric Jung, a 37-year-old former member of the movement from Laval.
“People who wanted nothing to do with us who now tell me that they want in,” he said. “Everything that is happening is leading us to join forces.”
Many are upset not only by the incident, but by the authorities’ fumbling response to the controversy and the loss of life.
The police has maintained that no error was made that night in late June. They used tear gas, they said, because dancers were throwing cans at them. “Legally, if cans were thrown, the police can respond with tear gas,” Arnaud Houte, a historian of the French police, said. “They argue legitimate defense. It’s morally questionable — a euphemism — but [technically] beyond reproach.”
The prefecture of Nantes didn’t respond to a request for comment.
A report by the French “police of the police,” the IGPN, stoked the fire when it found that “no link can be drawn” between the law enforcement operation near the concert and Caniço’s death. The report concluded the body could neither clear nor incriminate the police, an IGPN officer told POLITICO.
But the report did not include witness testimonies, said Victor Lacroix, who helped file a complaint on behalf of 89 concert-goers against the police for “endangering lives and voluntary violence by the authorities.”
“It’s pure PR, aimed at clearing the police,” said Lacroix.
Not all public officials have turned a blind eye. The mayor of Nantes, Johanna Rolland, called the report “troubling”; far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon criticized “a government that has lost control of the police.” France’s human rights commissioner, Jacques Toubon, has announced his department will launch its own investigation into the incident. Rights group Amnesty France called the incident a “tragedy” that is “emblematic of a drift in the maintenance of order in France in recent months."
Macron — who in March said it was misguided to use the term “police violence” in relation to what is happening in France — hasn’t weighed in on the case, letting his interior minister, Christophe Castaner, take most of the heat. Nor has Castaner had much to say about the incident and the backlash it caused, only admitting, a month after Caniço's death, that “the use of tear gas” by police has come under greater scrutiny. After the August 3 protest in Caniço’s home town, Castaner praised “the police’s engagement” at the rally and commended them for arresting “violent individuals.”
Calls for Castaner’s resignation — a common demand among the Yellow Jackets — have been taken up by protesters in Nantes.
“The government’s communication has been disastrous,” Houte, the historian, said, citing an “accumulation” of blunders that are feeding a “crisis of confidence” in the authorities.
The common perception, aided by the government’s fumbling response, is that the police have “lost sight of the limits,” Houte said, adding that the country’s police forces are “internally divided” and in need of a firm hierarchy. “Ignoring their mistakes [won’t] help.”
Caniço, a quiet music fan, was said to be well-liked at the school where he worked and in his theater group. He wasn’t political, or an activist. He’s just the type of innocent victim who could “mobilize” a broader movement against police brutality, according to some.
Jung, the former Yellow Jacket from Laval who has “stopped wearing the jacket,” is hoping Caniço’s death will spark a wider “citizens’ movement.”
“Castaner must go, and all the officers involved in violence be sacked,” he said. “Enough! I’ve never been anti-police or anti-government, but today want to shout ‘All Cops Are Bastards.’”
سایت تابناک از انتشار نظرات حاوی توهین و افترا و نوشته شده با حروف لاتین (فینگیلیش) معذور است.