Outcry as French police round up protesting high-school students

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December 7, 2018 3:00 pm

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Text by: Catherine BENNETT

A video showing a mass police round-up of high-school students in Mantes-la-Jolie in the Yvelines department in the western suburbs of Paris has caused outrage in France. The video started circulating on social media on Thursday evening.

It shows teenagers on their knees, still wearing their school backpacks, lined up facing a wall. The camera pans and further away are rows upon rows of high-school students, forced to kneel in the mud with their heads bowed and their hands behind their heads, as French police officers carrying riot shields and police batons watch over them. A voice heard on the video says, “Now this is a class that knows how to behave”.

More than 700 students across France were arrested on Thursday alone, as major protests erupted in secondary schools across the country. Young people have been piggybacking on the Yellow Vest movement to vent their anger at President Emmanuel Macron’s educational reforms.

In Yvelines, 151 people were arrested in front of the Saint-Exupéry secondary school, accused of involvement in an “armed gathering”, said police chief Arnaud Verhille. Two cars were set on fire and students were found to be carrying tear gas canisters, sticks and baseball bats. Across the department, 189 young people between the ages of 12 and 20 were held in custody on Thursday.

Between 200 and 300 secondary schools in France have been barricaded every day since the beginning of the week, giving rise to vandalism, cars set on fire and violent clashes between police and students.

The fact-checking arm of French news agency Agence France-Presse verified the video posted on social media. Local and AFP journalists on the scene also took videos of the round-up, from different angles.

The video has made waves across France’s political establishment.

Benoît Hamon, a former presidential candidate and now leader of political group Génération.s, said on Twitter that the video was “chilling, unacceptable. This isn’t the Republic. France’s young people humiliated. What does the government expect, if not anger in return?”.

Alexis Corbière, spokesperson for far-left politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon, asked, “Who can justify such a scene? Who gave orders to the police to do that?”

The national secretary of France’s green party, Europe Ecologie Les Verts, wrote that “These videos are insulting [to France]. Nothing justifies us humiliating our children like this”.

“Of course it’s shocking,” said the Minister of Education Jean-Michel Blanquer on French radio France Inter in response to the outcry. “When I saw the video myself, I was obviously shocked”. However, he urged listeners to remember the “context” around the video.

The prefect of Yvelines, Jean-Jacques Brot,told French daily Le Monde that although the videos were distressing, “No young person was hurt or mistreated, and we received no official complaint”.

On Friday, the Minister of the Interior Christophe Castaner said that “the last three weeks have given birth to a monster that has escaped its creators” – implying that the Yellow Vest protest has far outgrown its initial demands. Born as a response to a proposed fuel tax hike, now the movement has expanded, turning into a vehicle for the grievances of farmers, students and people across the political spectrum over the cost of living more generally.

French authorities are bracing for a third weekend of clashes. The Eiffel Tower in Paris will be closed on Saturday due to security concerns around planned demonstrations. Shops and businesses along the capital’s famed Champs-Élysées avenue were also told to close and protect their windows.

Text by: Catherine BENNETT

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