The Conseil d’Etat, France’s highest administrative court, will consider the case following a request from France’s Human Rights League and CGT trade union, which argues that the weapons are unfit for use at demonstrations.
The weapons in question are LBDs, which stands for lanceurs de balles de défense, or defensive bullet launchers, and which shoot projectiles such as rubber bullets that collapse or disperse on impact.
They are commonly known as Flash-Balls, after a brand produced by French weapons manufacturer Verney-Carron, although the French security forces currently use the LBD-40 made by Swiss firm Brugger&Thomet.
In French administrative jargon, LBDs are “non-lethal” weapons intended to dissuade or stop individuals with minimal risk of inflicting mortal wounds, and they are conceived as “intermediary weapons” between batons and handguns.
Criticism over their use as crowd control weapons during demonstrations is not new, but their use during Yellow Vest demonstrations has revived concern over unintended effects.
“This kind of weapon is not adapted to demonstrations, where people come in large numbers and move fast,” says Arié Alimi, a lawyer with the Human Rights League. “It’s impossible to get the result you want when you use it. That’s why you have a lot of people injured during the Yellow Vest demonstrations.”
‘A lot of injured people’
Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said last week that four people had sustained serious eye injuries since the beginning of Yellow Vest protests in mid-November, while activists put the number at 17.
All the same, a lower court rejected an initial request for LBDs to be banned at demonstrations last Friday, arguing the most recent demonstrations had been relatively calm and that police using LBDs were to be equipped with body cams.
But the controversy remained after demonstrations on Saturday, which saw three injuries linked to the use of LBDs, notably a serious eye injury for prominent Yellow Vest organiser Jerome Rodrigues.
Two bystanders in the city of Montpellier filed complaints after sustaining head injuries, including one by a soldier on leave who was hit in his eye outside a restaurant near clashes between rioting demonstrators and police.
“We are expecting another kind of decision, because after the first trial, there were a lot of injured people,” Alimi says.
Security forces facing ‘crisis’
Despite the injuries, police say LBDs are necessary for containing the violence that has been a regular feature on the margins of the demonstrations, which the government has been careful to blame on small groups of rioters and not the Yellow Vests as a whole.
“At this moment, we are dealing with a crisis,” Interior Minister Christophe Castaner told French media BFMTV on Tuesday.
“The number of sites of rallies is growing as there are more and more calls for protests, and there are also rioters – who I distinguish from the ‘Yellow Vests’ – who come with the intention of clashing with security forces.”
Castaner’s remarks come as lawmakers prepared to debate whether to extend police forces’ mandates to carry out searches, create security perimeters and block suspected rioters from accessing sites of demonstrations.
Many lawmakers in left-wing parties and in the party of President Emmanuel Macron fear the proposals go too far in restricting the right to attend public gatherings, while many right-wing MPs say they do not go far enough to ensure security.
Arié Alimi points out the question of the LBDs also touches upon the issue of civil liberties.
“The right to demonstration is a constitutional right,” he says. “When you use that kind of weapon, it’s not to defend, it’s really in fact to prevent people from going to demonstrations.”