French police drew heavy criticism on Monday after officers were filmed spraying peaceful climate activists in the face with teargas during a Paris sit-in last week.
Interior Minister Christophe Castaner has ordered an investigation into the incident which took place on Friday during a protest by the “Extinction Rebellion” group over the government’s environment policies.
A video shared on Twitter and since widely broadcast on news channels shows at least two officers spraying protesters with teargas at close range, while the demonstrators try to shield their faces, boo the police and shout “non-violent!”
The officers are then seen dragging the protesters away one by one.
On Monday, the Paris prosecutor launched a preliminary probe that was to be handled by the police department’s internal investigation unit, the IGPN.
A demonstrator who gave her name as Flora told AFP the police used teargas after some protesters who had earlier been forcibly removed from the sit-in returned to the scene.
“They opted for a strategy of gassing people 20 centimetres (eight inches) from their faces,” she said.
The Paris police department said officers had intervened to stop the protesters blocking traffic and that the demonstrators had been ordered “several times” to disperse. It said two people were arrested.
Images of the standoff caused an outcry both at home and abroad, with Sweden’s teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg tweeting a link to the video with the words: “Watch this video and ask yourself; who is defending who?”
‘Radical’ climate activists?
Launched in Britain, Extinction Rebellion organises acts of civil disobedience to draw attention to climate warming. Last month the group took part in the blockade of an open-pit coal mine in Germany.
Several French politicians condemned the treatment of the protesters in Paris.
“It’s outrageous to have young people who are fighting for our climate, who are fighting for our future… and the government’s only reaction is to not act and to teargas them,” Yannick Jadot, a Greens member of the European Parliament, told BFM news channel.
Socialist leader Olivier Faure said “that would not happen in a dictatorship and it’s happening in France.”
But Environment Minister Francois de Rugy, himself a former environmental activist, described the protesters as “very radical” and justified the use of the teargas “to get people to leave” the area.
There was also disquiet among some members of President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist Republic on the Move party with MP Barbara Pompili telling France 2 television she was “like everyone, quite shocked at teargas being sprayed very close to people’s eyes”.
Over the past year, Macron has come under growing criticism over what activists see as his failure to keep a 2017 promise to “make our planet great again”.
The French police have also been heavily criticised for their tactics during six months of weekly protests by anti-government “yellow vest” demonstrators.
Officers have been unable to stop crowds ransacking buildings and businesses while themselves drawing blame for a spate of serious injuries caused by their use of rubber bullets and stun grenades.
French law enforcement is also under investigation over the disappearance of a 24-year-old man in the western city of Nantes on June 21, World Music Day.
Steve Maia Canico went missing during a rave on an island in the Loire river that was broken up by the police with teargas following clashes with some of the revellers.
Several people who fell into the river during the melee were brought to safety but Maia Canico was never found. A march in his memory on Saturday in Nantes drew around 1,000 demonstrators.
In a further sign of how climate activists are increasingly turning to direct action, Greenpeace activists have been blocking the unloading of a Brazilian soy shipment in the southern French port of Sete.
On Monday, five of the activists — who blame soybean production for deforestation — were forcibly removed from the cranes to which they had chained themselves.