The Judiciary’s Treatment of the Yellow Vests Reinforces “the Idea That There Are the Powerful on One Side, and Everyone Else on the Other”

Is there rapid-fire justice tailored to the Yellow Vests movement? The prison terms or suspended sentences identified by “Basta!” show the extent of the judicial component in the crackdown on the Yellow Vests movement. Very numerous immediate appearances, dossiers quickly thrown together, convictions sometimes without concrete proof of the alleged facts, or for simply for having the will to participate in a demonstration that then degenerated: magistrates and lawyers give some elements of analysis of these court decisions.

Yellow Vests judged en masse during immediate appearances, sentences ranging from one month of suspended imprisonment to more than three years in prison, throwing projectiles majority among the reasons for convictions: the figures we have published give an idea of the judicial treatment of the Yellow Vests movement, which represent a considerable number of proceedings: 2,000 members of the Yellow Vests movement were sentenced between mid-November and the end of March, and 1,800 other people are waiting to be judged, according to the Ministry of Justice.

Behind these figures are each and every single one of the stories that appear in the reports of newspapers that we have examined. The gravity of the charges is very variable: from calls to blockade (6 months in Toulouse, January 8th) to physical violence against law enforcement (30 months in Caen February 4th), to property damage (12 months custodial sentence in Béziers, January 21st).

Many admit the charges and repent, whilst in the dock, of their actions. They did not measure the extent of their actions, they say. “These are often the same profiles: people with little or no experience at all with demonstrations, caught in a crowd movement,said the lawyer Raphael Kempf, who defended several Yellow Vests, in an interview with the “CQFD” newspaper .

Sentenced before committing a crime?

Some deny the charges that are handed to them. Some seem to have been there at the wrong time. The presence of a Yellow Vest at the scene of an event that degenerates is sometimes enough to pronounce a prison sentence. The offence of “participating in a group to commit acts of violence” is sometimes invoked. There is no need to prove, for example, that the detainee actually threw projectiles at the police to sentence a Yellow Vest to jail time. In Montpellier on March 9th one of them was given a six month suspended sentence and a ban on going to Montpellier on Saturday’s for having held stones and masks, standing next to “anarchists” leaflets.

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Convictions across the whole territory: on the basis of the 412 convicted prison sentences (up to 26/03/2019)

In Caen, a Yellow Vest was tried on March 21st for “participating in a group to commit an act of violence” and possessing weapons. Arrested before the demonstration with a knife in his pocket, he spent the whole day at the police station, without being able to participate in the violence that took place the afternoon of the mobilisation. A 3-month suspended prison sentence were required against him. The verdict will be delivered on May 23rd. “This offence is hard to describe, and deliberately fuzzy in order to place people in custody more easily,” said Anne-Sophie Wallach, from “Syndicat de la magistrature“, “Even if there is a relaxation, it is harmful for the life of the person who has been deprived of liberty for 24h or 48h. This is an obvious violation of the freedom to demonstrate”.

Dossiers quickly thrown together?

In Paris, three months of prison was pronounced to a Yellow Vest who was stopped with a paving stone in his bag on December 8th 2018. “Does this prove that he was planning to launch it against mobile gendarmes?”, asks the reporter from “L’Express” who followed the trial. “He disputes this, but the investigators have exploited his Facebook posts where he calls Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité ‘SoBs’ [sons of bitches]”. In Paris again, a Yellow Vest was handed a six-month suspended sentence for being found in possession of a helmet and protection for the torso and a baton in his vehicle before the event [1] .“In these quickly thrown together dossiers, no images or videos are presented. So it is often the word of a policeman against that of the defendant,” said the journalist of “L’Express” who attended the day of the trial.“There is no dispute – even with photos – with the police, who accuse them via their reports. These are sloppy procedures, said Laurence Roques, president of the Syndicate des Avocats de France (SAF) in an interview with “Basta!”.

Other Yellow Vests have only called for an event or a blockade. In January, the Narbonne Criminal Court sentenced a Yellow Vest to six months in prison for calling to block a refinery and having participated in a violent movement. For the prosecutor of the Republic, quoted in La Dépêche, the Yellow Vest should have returned home: “When one sees that one can go that far in a movement, one should not wait to be arrested before returning home to our companion”.

Custom prison sentences

The vast majority of convicted prisoners will not go to prison: convictions will be arranged a few weeks later by the sentence enforcement judge, usually when the sentence is less than two years in prison. The sentence can then be transformed into days-fine (so many days for so many euros), suspended with community service, wearing an electronic bracelet or semi-freedom (the sentenced person sleeps in prison but is free during the day).

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In the cases that we have examined, those who were locked up after a trial sometimes have a full criminal record. In Caen, a protester was sentenced to three years in prison for violence against law enforcement and three months for giving a false identity during his arrest. The Yellow Vest had already been condemned in the past. “I took my slingshot with me to the demonstrations,” he explained in the dock, “to target law enforcement, to push them back to allow the injured demonstrators to be evacuated”. In Toulouse, a 32-year-old man was sentenced to 12 months without remission and 18 months suspended for having dazzled a helicopter pilot with a laser. “There was almost a crash”said the pilot during the judgment.

More severe judgments?

Are the sentences handed down by the courts harsher than usual? Yes, according to Laurence Roques from “SAF”, who highlights many prison convictions given to first-time offenders (citizens who have never been convicted and face criminal justice for the first time in their lives). “This is very rare!”. The president of the lawyer union also pointed out numerous bans on going on territory or on demonstrating.“In SAF it was calculated that between 1995 and 2018, 33 people were affected by additional sentences with a ban on demonstrations. The judges used this provision very sparingly. Since November 2018 there have been several hundred people. These are clearly political penalties, which pose a real democratic problem”.

“Prohibitions to demonstrate were until then not very pronounced,” confirms Anne-Sophie Wallach, from “Syndicat de la magistrature”. According to the judge, these prohibitions are a way of maintaining order: “For a social movement like the Yellow Vests, which is very predictable because there are demonstrations every Saturday, it is a sentence that is very effective, we see the effects right away”. However, “Syndicat de la magistrature” is waiting to see all the judgments before affirming that the courts operate with greater severity.

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Rapid-fire justice

One thing is certain: the courts are judging cases relating to the Yellow Vests in record time. According to the data we have collected, about 60% of convicted or condemned prison sentences are pronounced within three days of the events. Already overloaded, the courts are obliged to postpone the processing of ordinary cases [2].

Very reactive justice: two-thirds of all convictions are made less than 72 hours after the event

For Adeline Hazan, general supervisor of liberty deprivation places, these immediate appearances are a “caricature of rapid-fire justice”“Magistrates have so many people to judge in a very short period of time, without any personality investigation or guarantee of the rights of the defence,” she said during the presentation of her annual report [news relayed on Twitter by the journalist from “l’Humanité” Marie Barbier]. “It’s a defence in a hurry, during which we do not have time to work on the dossiers,” said the lawyer Laurence Roques. For the defendants, to be judged in court has another disadvantage: “They do not have the same reactivity, they have more difficulties when gathering their ideas,” added the magistrate Anne-Sophie Wallach. “In general, they are released after spending 48 hours in custody and they were not well prepared”.

What are the consequences of these conditions of judgment for the Yellow Vests movement? For SAF’s Laurence Roques, “the idea that on one side there are the powerful, and on the other side there is everyone else – which triggered the movement last November – is reinforced by the way the Yellow Vests are treated by the judiciary. In these conditions, social anger cannot fall down.

Simon Gouin and Nolwenn Weiler

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