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I saw children being gassed on the Champs-Élysées last week – police violence in France is out of control

Even in a city as traditionally turbulent as Paris, recent scenes of police violence have been exceptionally shocking. Victims over the past few weeks have ranged from journalists and students to environmentalists and asylum seekers. 

No matter what their background, or political persuasion, all have been viewed as legitimate targets for heavily armed paramilitaries trained to deal with any perceived threat to order with extreme brutality. These specialist riot control officers – and there are thousands of them – consider summer as a time when every type of undesirable takes to the streets, and they see nothing wrong with imposing their authority as harshly as possible. 

The sheer horror of the situation was made abundantly clear on the Champs-Élysées last week where – as usual – the catalyst for much social disorder was France’s forces of law and order using chemical weapons on their own citizens.

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Videos shot on the most famous avenue in the country show young children struggling to get away from clouds of fumes created by tear gas that is banned in warzones. Astonishing as it may sound, French police are allowed to use substances designed to burn eyes, mouths and lungs against ordinary civilians, but, because of international treaties, soldiers up against genuine enemies are not. 

The International Committee of the Red Cross first made battlefield chemical and biological weapons illegal after French forces launched 22mm grenades full of lachrymator ethyl bromoacetate at the Germans during the First World War, but failed to extend this prohibition to domestic forces.  

Hundreds of canisters rained down on thousands of men, women and children who were celebrating the Algeria national football team progressing towards the final of the Africa Cup of Nations, and indeed after winning it on Friday night. Among them were families with toddlers in pushchairs. 

Others included the kind of young men of North African appearance whom the French police, and especially those in Paris, tend to despise. There have been countless confrontations over recent decades, most of them relating to Algeria’s war of independence from France, which ended in victory in 1962. Domestic atrocities linked to the conflict involved Algerian protesters being tortured, beaten to death and drowned in the River Seine by city police. 

Post-colonial tensions between a vast Algerian diaspora living in cities such as Paris and Marseille have by no means disappeared, and there is no doubt that sports victories can bring out a thuggish tendency, just as happens when teams such as France or Paris Saint-Germain win key games. 

None of this justifies pouring gas into overwhelmingly peaceful crowds of innocent people, however. I heard the screams of those caught in the worst melees, including the crying boys and girls who were vomiting and shaking with fear as the fumes spread. It was a balmy evening, and there was next to no hiding place on the Champs-Élysées itself. 

As the number of gas projectiles increased, many of the teenage fans ended up in side streets, where looting and vandalism took place. This is a classic pattern I have recorded while covering numerous riots in Paris, not least of all those involving the Gilets-Jaunes (Yellow Vests) anti-government movement who have caused millions of euros worth of damage in the capital alone. Again, the trouble is absolutely inexcusable, but the contribution of the gas towards already highly fraught situations is undeniable. 

Despite all this, it was only the English-language media that reported on the gassing of children. French media was instead full of erroneous claims. No, an Algerian football fan was categorically not responsible for a tragic road traffic accident in the southern city of Montpellier in which a young mother died.  

Incidents were also hyped up by the usual hypocritical far-right rabble rousers. Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Rally – a party founded as the National Front by racist ultra-nationalists infuriated by the loss of Algeria – called for a ban on football fans on the Champs-Élysées after actively encouraging the far more destructive and violent Gilets Jaunes to gather there. 

When I first reported on the increasingly scandalous use of gas by Paris police in December, Aurélie Bonal, the chief spokesperson at the French Embassy in London, took to Twitter to deny tear gas was a chemical weapon. Despite all the scientific and legal evidence to the contrary, she said it was unethical to describe it as such.

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Beyond a mother desperately trying to protect her offspring from the vile effects of these chemical weapons, other films that have been widely circulated since then are of Paris riot police spraying peaceful and stationary environmental demonstrators as if they were insects. 

A particularly disturbing extract of the footage shows a burly officer illegally ripping off a protester’s sunglasses and goggles, so ensuring that his eyes had no protection from the chemicals. More than five litres of gas were used in less than 30 minutes, and the commander in charge was among those who fainted as he suffered suffocation on the Sully Bridge, according to a police report. 

It all adds up to a vicious abuse of power that those in President Emmanuel Macron’s administration finally need to acknowledge, and do something about. 

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