Allô Place Beauvau: A Chronicle of State Violence Against the Yellow Vests

In 20 + 1 commented tweets, the writer-journalist David Dufresne recounts his days and nights spent highlighting the police violence that happened during the demonstrations of Yellow Vests and secondary school students. How the project “Allô @Place_Beauvau” was born, how it is implemented, how it has evolved.

Is it the father in me crying out? The first flagging concerns a secondary school student in Bordeaux. A video of a teenager on the ground, hit in the face by a shot of LBD 40, and a police officer who tells the teenager’s comrades “shut your mouth”. Two days before this scene it was December 1st and its cortege of seriously wounded on the Champs-Elysees. Videos, photos, and testimonials flocked to my Twitter feed by the dozens.

Nothing on television; so little in the press. A long-time observer of law enforcement, I am in a state of astonishment between, on the one hand, unprecedented violence that descends in the framework of social demonstrations, violence that is unprecedented in terms of its brutality but also its repetition, and, on the other hand, the media silence that surrounds it and de facto authorises it.

“Allô @Place_Beauvau” began between indignation and whistle blowing. Not for a moment did I imagine that six months later we would be where we are, with permanent alerts and flagging.

By the second flagging, the syntax was in place. The title, the number, the facts, the date, the source. The tone will be clinical and factual, in order to reach the greatest number. A factual count, a filled gap. The Ministry of the Interior, via the Twitter account @Place_Beauvau, is questioned, rather than @Pnationale, for simple reasons: from all the police forces, the ones that maintain order relay politics the most intimately.

The martial declarations of Christophe Castaner, Laurent Nuñez, Édouard Philippe, and even Emmanuel Macron are the signature of it. We remember this when combining all the flaggings in our “Mediapart” visualisation, illustrating our collection of maps of some of these statements. It is a matter of pointing out, above all, the order givers.

The first dissemination of photos taken, with the consent of the victims, by the hospital staff. Then the reports of the first-aid workers will come. An unthinkable gallery of facial injuries emerges. I spent night and day searching on social networks all documented cases. Being alone, I gave myself this obligation (for each flagging, a document is necessary: photo, video, medical certificate, medical scans, complaint).

The flaggings are not necessarily chronological, their numbering follows the date of dissemination, which doesn’t always correspond to the exact time of the incident. I started to go back to the first act of the Yellow Vests (November 17th 2018), where we would later discover that three residents of Reunion lost an eye (shot by LBD 40). An illustration of what the French-style maintenance of order has often done: greater violence in Overseas France than in mainland France.

They would become the first to be blinded in an unprecedented series that, as a new factor in the maintenance of social order, will affect precisely France in full force: to date, 29 serious mutilations were recorded in six months, versus the 36 recorded in the previous 20 years, according to the figures of the collective “Disarm Them”.

There are the photos, and there is the sound. This satisfied statement of a policeman-videographer, “here we go, a class that remains wise”, sounds like a threat. Before our eyes, the maintenance of order becomes repression. These methods, which have been confined to working-class neighbourhoods for the last 30 years, with almost total indifference, have come to light.

“Allô @Place_Beauvau” intends to document particularly this drift (it’s impossible, in fact, to list all the police violence of all kinds across the whole territory by oneself). The story of the emergence of this video symbolises the new circulation of information.

First posted on the Facebook account of the police officer who filmed the scene, it was quickly removed. But the Twitter account Obs_violences recovered and disseminated it. In six months it will be seen by more than three million people, in what some will call the weak media’s victory over the strong media.

Last Monday, May 13th, the IGPN heard the first testimony of secondary school students forced to kneel for several hours. One of their lawyers, Arié Alimi, called for the appointment of an investigating judge who would guarantee the independence of the investigation.

In less than four days I had done more than 60 flaggings. Antoine’s cry will haunt my daily life. Thinking it was a tear gas grenade, he wanted to pick up what was in reality a GLI-F4 – categorised as a weapon of war by international instances (the grenade includes 26 grams of TNT). France is one of the few European countries to use it on its soil.

To date, five GLI-F4s have ripped off the hands of five protesters since Act 1 of the Yellow Vests. Laurent Thines, a neurosurgeon, would soon send out an appeal against these “war wounds”. Soon, an association of ophthalmologists would in turn be worried.

The spectre of the return of the “voltigeurs” – this motorcycling pack dissolved after the death of Malik Oussekine on December 6th 1986. 32 years later, in December 2018, they are called DAR (Rapid Action Detachments/Détachements d’action rapide). In April 2019 the BRAV-M (Motorised Violent Action Repression Brigade/Brigade de répression de l’action violente motorisée).

These images were filmed by Stéphanie Roy, a member of a whole generation of spontaneous videographers: Taha Bouhafs, Rémy Buisine, Gaspard Glanz, Clément Lanot, and many others. Their light means of filming and live broadcasting considerably modify the situation, like Europe 1 (“radio barricade”) in May 1968. Soon, Facebook Live would become legion. Some already alert me by private message about the edifying scenes that they could capture.

After a month of deafening media silence, which serves political denial, France suddenly discovers the extent of mutilations. Public debate finally opens with the question of the use during a demonstration of so-called “sub-lethal” weapons. In Matignon, as in Beauvau, as in the prefectures, they dug their heels in. The director of the National Police was obliged to remember the guidelines, pedestrian cameras are demanded on the shooter or his partner.

Among the victims, there is 15-year-old Lilian, who was hit on the cheek and jaw while leaving a sports shop. A wild shot during the January sales.

“Mediapart” uploads our data-visualization. A project prepared in three weeks, around several longtime colleagues, Hans Lemuet (Etamin Studio), Philippe Rivière (VisionsCarto), Karen Bastien, and Nicolas Bœuf (WeDoData) and others. As soon as we put it online, we explained the working method (collection of cases, cross-checking, documents), as well as the doctrine of use of the main weapons.

The goal is to show systematic violence. It is no longer a flagging after another flagging, but a flagging on another flagging. All “Allô @Place_Beauvau” tweets are imported automatically into a confidential spreadsheet. All documents (videos, photos, etc.) are copied and secured.

The keywords of the tweets are directly integrated: the city, the weapon in question, the date, the number of the report, etc. Some information is added, sometimes details long after the incident has happened according to the evolution of events (judicial, medical, social). Once consolidated, the reports enter the database and the charts are updated. Since the beginning two “vigilantes”, Domène and Perline, accompany me in this step.

At the time of the publication of the flagging above, we did not know if Jérôme Rodrigues, a figure of the movement, would lose his eye. He filmed and broadcasted events live. There was panic at the prefecture, which triggered an IGPN investigation. This is the only one out of more than 220 complaints that has been, for the time being, entrusted to a judge. His case would become the subject of a dozen details (medical, judicial).

In total, from the 795 reports, more than 400 clarifications were made and published (as a result of 2,308 e-mails received and thousands of notifications).

The 400th flagging. A figure that was inconceivable two months earlier. The Minister of the Interior Christophe Castaner, who remains silent concerning our figures, will still refuse to grant us an interview, despite our multiple official requests. Still, despite the lies of the state, the “Allo @Place_Beauvau” system participates in highlighting police violence in general. From this moment onwards, the issue would be discussed everywhere – on the radio, in the press, on continuous news channels, in different tones.

The dramatic turn of events started to reach international institutions. First and foremost: MEPs who call on France “to ensure the transparency, impartiality, independence, and effectiveness of investigations when the use of disproportionate force is suspected, and they asked that law enforcement bodies are always held accountable for the performance of their duties.”

Not all flaggings are for serious injuries. Some report possible breaches of the Code of Ethics of the National Police (reviewed in 2014), possible misuse of weapons, humiliation, insults, interference with the freedom of the press, etc. Toulouse (here in the video) would become one of the cities most cited, with Paris, Bordeaux, and Nantes. But the information equally concerns medium and small towns, such as Bar-le-Duc, Besançon, etc.

In Paris Dunja Mijatović, Commissioner for Human Rights at the Council of Europe, invited me to a private meeting, on January 28th. Her report, one month later, would reveal the astronomical number of shots fired during the Yellow Vests and secondary school demonstrations, between November 17th 2018 and February 4th 2019: 12,122 LBD shots, 1,428 shots of instant teargas grenades, and 4,942 throws of sting-ball grenades.

Questioned specifically about my reports, France would officially respond to the commissioner by saying that “the source mentioned, described as the ‘tally of an independent journalist’, is not identified”. A fallacious sleight of hand by Quai d’Orsay: the link of flaggings, given by the Commissioner in her report, explicitly referred to the page “Allô @Place_Beauvau”, hosted by Mediapart, where everything has always present (names, methodology, etc.). Denial by omission.

Among the victims of police violence in the demonstrations, two targets stand out. The “street medics”, from mid-March, and journalists, as of December, with an upsurge in March. More than a hundred videographers, photographers, and cameramen will be targeted. Reporters Without Borders expressed its discontent in front of Emmanuel Macron (May 3rd 2019). Several unions, including the SNJ, took a stand.

A scathing snub for France, the UN in turn is alarmed. An annoyed Prime Minister’s responded: “I really like to hear the High Commissioner’s advice, but I remind that in France, we are in a lawful state and that the Republic in the end is the strongest”. At the same time, the number of IGPN surveys explodes: 162 during Édouard Philippe’s interview, more than 200 today. This has never been seen before. In the Senate elected officials demanded to ban the LBD. Amnesty International prepared itself to do the same. The majority of police unions came out of the woodwork.

When asked about the victims of police violence, Prime Minister Édouard Philippe referred to injured police officers. If the number of the latter has always figured in our data-visualization (despite the random communication on this topic by the authorities), the reply of the Prime Minster nonetheless doesn’t bring satisfaction, except if we consider that the Republic is subject to the law of retaliation.

A particular flagging, in its form (only the sound, almost) and in its essence (the post-arrest judicial procedure), where we approach the second layer of repression, that of justice. France is then plunged into debates that bring it back 40 years: the anti-breaker law, preventive arrests, unfounded custody, and soon the random characterisation of any object that can become “a possible weapon” even before having possibly being used as such. This verbal exchange at the police station in Le Havre says a lot about the randomness that prevails.

Over the months, it is the victims, their relatives, or the videographers who are now in direct contact with me. Communication that essentially goes through email (with an explanation of usage available online). If the cases are often published anonymously, for reasons of confidentiality, we have the coordinates of the majority of the victims, and a written record of our exchanges.

The impact of the project would oblige us to be doubly vigilant, at a time when, more and more, camouflage is put on the streets (the repeated absence of the “Police” armband on some civilians, an identification number, and the faces of police officers hidden by balaclavas). A handful of false reports from grumpy spirits arrive via email: a fake kitty for fake wounds, two practical jokes with a sour taste.

Almost all of these traps do not pass the test of reverse image search, via Google Images, or the extraction of photo metadata using tools such as MetaPicz. Out of nearly 800 flaggings, and after six months of work, our vigilance was abused twice, two erroneous flaggings that remained online: one night; and other, less than ten minutes.

The official narrative of the direction of the Paris Hospitals and the government ran a loop on the channels and news sites: the hospital of Pitié-Salpêtrière was the victim of an “attack” in the afternoon. The Minister of the Interior went to the scene, accompanied by his second, Laurent Nuñez, and the new Prefect of Police of Paris, Didier Lallement.

In the evening, the first videos arrived to my email box dedicated to the project [email protected] They totally contradict the narrative of the government. In the early morning, written testimonies flood. It was necessary to wait a few hours in order for the truth to burst out, and that #PitiéGate spreads out.

A few hours after the broadcast of this unpublished video, sent by email, two investigations were opened. One, administrative; the other, judicial. Police contacts, reactivated since the first days of “Allô @Place_Beauvau”, assure me of their dismay at what they call the “headlong rush of the command and orders”.

On May 17th 2019 the provisional summary of “Allô @Place_Beauvau” (Grand Prix of journalism 2019) amounts to:

  • 795 flaggings
  • 1 death
  • 284 head injuries
  • 24 blinded eyes
  • 5 ripped off hands

In the end, if we compare the number of flaggings documented by “Allô @ Place_Beauvau” with the summaries now provided weekly by the street medics, then ours, not exhaustive, remain below the magnitude of the facts. If we refer to the undocumented figures of the Ministry of the Interior, ours are still falling short of reality.

To date, @Place_Beauvau has never answered our calls. And no official answer worthy of such a name has reached us.

And to finish

This is the very first “Allô @Place_Beauvau” before the first “Allô @Place_Beauvau”, and there was already astonishment. This is “Allô @prefpolice”. It was the 1st of May (2018), Place de la Contrescarpe in Paris. A young reporter, Taha Bouhafs, immortalises a particularly violent immobilisation technique.

The man wearing a police helmet, beating a protester, is not a policeman. Soon it would become the most famous unknown in France: Alexandre Benalla, the prefiguration of an illegal and illegitimate maintenance of order six months before the Yellow Vests.

David Dufresne, Mediapart

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