Police Violence Against Yellow Vests: When the Weak Media Becomes the Strongest

In its edition of May 14th, “Le Monde” put “police violence” on the first page. A disturbing case calls into question six months of denial, and marks the failure of the government, which has given way to the “spiral of violence”. Without online videos, could this late admission have taken place?

In its edition of May 14th, “Le Monde” admits on the first page the existence of “police violence”, and devotes a worrying file to it. This is a turning point in the battle between the government and the Yellow Vests that has been ongoing since November. Since the beginning of the movement, Emmanuel Macron and his government have chosen to sing from the same hymn sheet described by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman in Manufacturing Consent, denouncing the “ultra-violence” of the demonstrators and denying the existence of police violence.

There is no photo on the front page of “Le Monde” ¹. Faced with a mass of images that haunt the memory, this absence is an editorial choice that prolongs the denial shared for six months by the government and the major media (Mediapart is the only newspaper that reported on the social conflict in a balanced way). But as is explained in the “daily reference” dossier, everyone has seen these images on social networks: “The footage of police officers molesting protesters are broadcasted on a loop. Everything is dissected, commented, relayed.”

The power of the weak media’s revelations exists only because the big media, for their part, did not restitute in an impartial way – which they claim is their mission – this yet terribly visible part of the social conflict. Like all the editorial offices, unable to produce true self-criticism, “Le Monde” does not comment on its own silence that contributed to making the Internet the only channel carrying the evidence of police abuses, documented on a daily basis by the meticulous census of the journalist David Dufresne on his Twitter account (which only Mediapart regularly relayed).

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A recent account of the book written by the sociologist Jen Schradie contradicts the optimistic predictions of the gurus of web 2.0: “The Internet has not been the tool of a participative democracy”. The researcher underlines the lack of horizontality of the media, which remains subject to class divisions. The militant practices of the Yellow Vests, which were quickly met with strong class resistance, and the failure to maintain direct communication between the protesters and the public, confirm the diagnosis of this relative waterproofing. The “Le Monde” dossier nonetheless constitutes an involuntary tribute to the ability of social networks to circulate information obliterated by manufactured consent. Rather than a communication tool, the merit of the web is to have played the role of a mediator well, through the active filter of conversation and the selection of footage designated as the key moments of the conflict, first commented on Twitter before being replayed by news channels or television news.

Since the videos of social networks have given visibility to police violence, what is the use of seeing them mentioned by “Le Monde”? This is because information does not have the same value or the same authority according to the organ that transmits it. The concordant view from the media of different sensibilities strongly contributes to the universal character of the problem. In France, for six months, in the absence of consensual treatment of police violence, it was possible to pretend to ignore the issue.

The recognition by a daily newspaper of a theme that had until now been deployed only by alternative media illustrates its passage to the rank of a legitimate problem in the public sphere. Just as highlighting Castaner’s lie about the so-called “attack” at the Salpêtrière Hospital forced the Minister of the Interior into humiliating backpedaling, politicians will now have to choose between denial and the risk of losing all credibility. When one considers the months of efforts devoted by Emmanuel Macron to the invisibilisation of police violence, this reversal is a bitter failure.

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One of the key factors in this scenario was the duration and consistency of the Yellow Vest’s mobilisation. If “Le Monde” has taken six months to admit the unprecedented importance of police violence, we can judge the difficulty of contradicting manufactured consent. It is not enough to use an autonomous channel, nor for the diffusion of recordings acting as proof. It took the long accumulation of suffering, testimonies, and the rise of a feeling of scandal that gradually spread in society. Despite the attempt of “Le Monde” to maintain a fictitious equilibrium between the “ultraviolence” of the breakers and the exactions of the police, the final conclusion, that of a government that has yielded to the spiral of violence, “powerless to bring back social harmony”, sounds like a condemnation. The good news is that the Internet can override manufactured consent. But the victory of weak media has a taste of ashes.

¹ A photograph of Benjamin Girette from the demonstration of May 1st, which shows a clash between police officers and Yellow Vests, illustrates the dossier on the inside pages.

André Gunthert, Mediapart

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