Tear Gas: Montpellier Suffocates

In the wake of Act 19 of the Yellow Vests, Saturday, March 23rd, several protesters noted health problems related to the massive and repeated use of tear gas. The police are also starting to pick up some symptoms. Is this not more of a public health problem than a law enforcement one?

“We’re hotter! Hotter ! Hotter than tear gas!” This slogan heard almost every Saturday in the procession of “Yellow Vests” symbolises the desire not to withdraw from the streets of central Montpellier, despite the willingness of the police to disperse the demonstrators. But the protesters may become disillusioned.

Indeed, in the last two weeks, for the first time since the beginning of the movement, a large number of them complain about the deterioration of their health. The testimonials are numerous and the symptoms all go in the same direction: abnormal chronic fatigue, breathing difficulties, bleeding from the nose, headaches, tension spikes, diarrhoea, and nausea.

A thread on Telegram, a secure messaging application, was opened by Christophe, a member of the communication unit within the assembly of Yellow Vests in Montpellier, to collect these testimonies. “I have shortness of breath at the slightest effort. I feel like I’m choking. My respiratory capacity has diminished,” writes Hamida. “The nights are difficult. I have a big sore throat, my cough is painful and my lungs hurt,” we also read. Or again: “I am demolished! I’m coughing and bringing up very yellow, my throat is sore”. People previously undiagnosed as asthmatics may have had asthma attacks.

“A dosage that’s too much”

On March 23rd, Maria, an assistant nurse and street medics volunteer, traveled to the capital to participate in Act 19, a regional gathering of just over 4,000 protesters. Three days later, she found that she was still suffering serious consequences.

“My eyes are burning. For several days, I could not go outside without sun protection, glasses, and a hat. I had otorhinolaryngological inflammation. This is the first time I have had such congestion after a demonstration,” she explained to “D’Oc”. “For me, that Saturday, the amount of gas received was nothing at all like the previous weekends. It burned my skin. I went to the emergency room because it was too much. Then, I consulted my GP and was put on cortisone.” Shocked, she did not want to return to walk the streets of Montpellier for Act 20.

For her part, Fabienne, a private nurse, feels “in an inflamed state”, with “paralysed legs”. She has felt these symptoms since Act 18 in Paris, which she participated in. But Fabienne does not understand, considering herself usually in good shape: “I nevertheless took part in the citizen march for RIC, in February, which left Grau-du-Roi [in the Gard department of France] to join the capital.”

There were the same anomalies for Kevin, from Narbonne, after his mobilisation in Montpellier for Act 19: “My nose bled for two or three days. I still have headaches, I’m out of breath as if I had just smoked four packs of cigarettes at once.”

Another “Yellow Vest” from Aude told “D’Oc” that they had some unusual after-effects after the March 23rd rally. “On Sunday, I was unusually tired, I had speech disorders, unjustified forgetfulness, remembers Ludovic, a territorial officer. On Monday, I went to the emergency room. I was told that my condition was similar to that of someone who was using psychotropic drugs. Then, as the days go by, it goes away.”

There are also other stories on social networks. This situation is worrying the League of Human Rights (LDH) of Montpellier, especially as one of its observers also suffered astonishing disorders after the day of March 23rd. Her doctor reported “a severe exacerbation of asthma following a bronchial irritation syndrome”.

Two days after Act 20 of March 30th, the doctor wrote that the patient was “repeatedly exposed to tear gas causing severe asthma attacks” had “a very impaired functional assessment with a FEV1 [forced expiratory volume in 1 second] of 1.441, 54% of the theoretical value, distension, and hyperinflation. The patient has multi-daily symptoms. I propose an oral corticotherapy progressively decreasing over 7 days”, and recommended “Ventolin nebulisations” as well as a “thoracic scanner”.

Several journalists in Montpellier, used to covering the demonstrations, also felt the stronger intensity of the tear gas, the daily Midi Libre even echoed last Monday. The LDH takes this topic very seriously: Saturday, in front of the prefecture of Herault, its representatives also launched a call for testimonies to measure the extent of the phenomenon.

Law enforcement in doubt

These past Saturdays, shots of tear gas are fired everywhere, whether in the small medieval lanes of the Écusson or on the vast Place de la Comédie. It is not uncommon for the police to find themselves in the middle of gas clouds.

“More and more colleagues are disturbed,” Christophe Miette, leader of the “Syndicat des Cadres de la Sécurité Intérieure” (SCSI) for the Occitan area, confirmed to “D’Oc” . “In recent weeks, the cartridges contain more pellets. There are different kinds of grenades with a CS content of 7% to 15%. Each organisation operates with its own methods of launching.”

Christophe Miette says that “the stock of grenades was renewed in 2015 and has a validity period of 20 years”. According to him, “the composition of the gas has not changed”. Nevertheless, the increase in dosage is not without consequences. According to him, “there are more particles floating in the air, and therefore, many more impregnate the skin and clothing. The ideal thing would be to get naked, wash, and change clothes quickly.”

This finding is also shared by Yann Bastière, representative of the Unité SGP Police-Force Ouvrière unit in Montpellier. “Several colleagues have skin and eye problems due to unsuitable protective equipment,” he notes to “D’Oc”. He notes “some go on sick leave, the cause of which would also have to be put in perspective, with the psychosocial risks related to a permanent solicitation for four months”.

In this turbulent period, however, the medical monitoring of police officers has not been strengthened. And Yann Bastière readily admits that receiving tear gas every Saturday for about 15 weeks is “an unprecedented situation”. There is little rotation among the workforce, “for example, the same men of the departmental intervention company are on the ground three Saturdays out of four”.

With consequences for everyone, including traders, tourists, passers-by, the elderly or vulnerable, and parents with strollers and toddlers. Because tear gas is a non-lethal but imprecise weapon. It does not target anyone in particular, and its use often seems repeated and disproportionate.

France, pilot country

If the Geneva Convention on Chemical Weapons (1993) prohibits the use of tear gas in war, paradoxically, it is allowed for the maintenance of order. France, a pilot country in the use of gas, has made it its doctrine. A usage that tends to become commonplace.

More than 10,000 grenades were fired at Notre-Dame-des-Landes in 10 days, while a brigadier-chief recognised to Le Figaro that his company of CRS fired more than 1,000 on the third day of “Yellow Vests” being mobilised in Paris during the incidents around the Champs-Élysées (in total, there had been 5,000 the previous week in the capital).

However, studies on its composition remain opaque and the consequences on the human body are still approximate. These effects, usually instantaneous, can be strengthened in children, pregnant women, and people with asthma or bronchial problems, as was reported in the journal Regards.

On March 15th 2018 the independent online media Reporterre recalled that the “Défenseur des Droits” had noted in a report that the “German police do not use tear gas, considering that non-aggressive or non-violent people could suffer the effects unduly”. In 2014, an NGO reported 39 deaths in Bahrain after the regime used tear gas during the uprising. South Korea, and also France, had to stop the export of this chemical weapon.

Xavier Malafosse and Benjamin Téoule (Le D’Oc), Mediapart

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