After excessive police violence, even by French standards, Gérald Darmanin threatens to withdraw funding from the Human Rights League. The organisation had criticised the brutal crackdown on protests at a “Megabassin” in Sainte-Soline.
In a four-hour hearing in the National Assembly and the Senate, French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin justified the heavy Gendarmerie’s action against a demonstration at the so-called Megabassin in Sainte-Soline on 25 March. According to the liberal politician, it was not a problem of the police but of the “ultra-left”. Darmanin also included the Human Rights League (Ligue des droits de l’homme – LDH), which he sharply attacked and whose accusations of excessive police violence he denied. The organisation, which also takes legal action against alleged “non-lethal weapons” used by the security authorities, does not have observer status, he said. Finally, the minister threatened to cut off state funding.
On the Saturday almost a fortnight ago, according to the organisers, some 30,000 environmental activists had gathered under the slogan “Not one more reservoir” near the small community of Sainte-Soline in the south-west of the country. The village is located in the Poitou-Charentes region, which is affected by massive drought due to climate change. The government is responding to the phenomenon by digging basins several metres deep to collect rainwater for industrial agriculture. There are 60 such basins in the Poitou-Charentes region alone, and around 100 in the whole of France. Critics oppose the basins because they extract groundwater from the soil and thus exacerbate the water problem in the long run.
Police violence by the Gendarmerie
In rural areas, the Gendarmerie is responsible for public security and also performs police duties. For this purpose, it is subordinate to both the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of the Interior. Even by French standards, the force has been exceptionally tough against the protests. A large demonstration registered by the Confédération paysanne and two environmental groups was banned by the Ministry of the Interior. 3,000 soldiers had therefore positioned themselves around the basin and surrounded it with a chain of vehicles, four tanks and water cannons each, as well as nine helicopters.
After three demonstration marches nevertheless went near the cordon, the gendarmerie responded by firing tear gas and so-called “hornets’ nests”. These are explosive grenades containing 18 hard rubber sticks. Like tear gas, they are a ranged counter-insurgency weapon and are known in France as “disencirclement grenades”.
Tear gas can also be deployed in grenades; for this purpose, the gendarmes use the “GM2L” grenade, introduced in 2018, which contains around 50 grams of explosives. Its predecessor models had caused fierce criticism after the 21-year-old environmental activist Rémi Fraisse was killed with such a weapon in 2014. In the years since, at least seven people have had their hands torn off by the grenades, and other injuries are caused by the loud banging noise and flying shrapnel.
Terrain “mined” with grenades
The Human Rights League had criticised this violence in a report one day after the demonstration, calling the so-called “non-lethal weapons” as “war material”. According to official figures, the Gendarmerie fired more than 5,000 explosive and tear gas grenades in Sainte-Soline, injuring around 200 people, 40 of them seriously, two of whom remain in danger of losing their lives.
According to the report, armed gendarmes wearing motorbike helmets drove into the demonstrators on 20 quad bikes and fired “massively and indiscriminately” with tear gas and hard rubber launchers. The grenades were also thrown “very far and indiscriminately” into the crowd with the help of launchers. This had led to “considerable tension” among the demonstrators, LDH says. Some of the grenades did not explode and the area was “mined” by delayed explosions.
The Human Rights League, which was on the scene with six teams of observers, complained that the Gendarmerie obstructed the medics who had been called in for hours. Interior Minister Darmanin denies this. However, according to the LDH report, in a telephone conversation with three of the organisation’s lawyers, a member of the rescue forces stated that he was not allowed to intervene on the orders of the Gendarmerie.
MPs and observers targeted
Members of parliament were also present at the protests. According to the Human Rights League, when they formed a human chain with the observers around the injured to enable their evacuation, they were also fired upon with tear gas. At that point, the demonstrators reportedly did not engage in violence. Earlier, four vehicles belonging to the Gendarmerie were reportedly set on fire.
The Human Rights League was founded in 1898, making it one of the oldest civil and human rights organisations in the country. In fact, it receives government funding as well as donations and membership fees; in 2021, funding is reported to have amounted to almost €300,000.
Numerous organisations have now shown solidarity with the LDH and demanded the withdrawal of the threat. The LDH itself responded to the accusations in a press release. According to the statement, the Minister of the Interior is flouting various international conventions, which stipulate that the presence of observers at assemblies must be guaranteed by law, without authorities being allowed to obstruct this right.
Image: Joanie Lemercier (Twitter).