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French president Emmanuel Macron’s decision to use anti-terrorist troops to help police control any violent demonstrations in Paris this weekend has triggered fierce criticism from both sides of the political divide as well as security analysts.
Mr Macron decided to deploy soldiers of the Sentinelle unit to relieve the police of some of their guard duties at strategic buildings after rioters rampaged down the Champs Elysées in central Paris last Saturday, ransacking shops and setting the famous Fouquet’s restaurant ablaze. “We cannot let a tiny, violent minority ruin our country and damage the image of France abroad,” said Benjamin Griveaux, government spokesman, after a cabinet meeting this week.
Christophe Castaner, the embattled interior minister, spoke of “zero impunity” as he instructed the new Paris police chief, Didier Lallement, to deal with what will be the 19th weekend of anti-government gilets jaunes protests.
The authorities on Friday announced a ban on demonstrations on Saturday in parts of the capital including the Champs Elysées, the National Assembly and around the Arc de Triomphe, which was vandalised in a previous protest in December. A ban was also imposed in central Toulouse in the south-west, which has been hard hit by the weekly demonstrations.
But members of parliament from across the political spectrum have attacked the decision to bring in the army. Rightwingers pointed to the risk that extremist protesters would target soldiers and force them to fire live rounds, while the left criticised what they see as Mr Macron’s authoritarian tendencies.
“The soldiers of the Sentinelle force are not trained or equipped to maintain order,” Eric Ciotti, of the rightwing Les Républicains, said on Twitter. “In the event of a problem, what would the soldiers do? Use their weapons? That would be irresponsible.”
Jean-Luc Mélenchon, of the extreme-left France Insoumise (France Unbowed) party, said: “You’ve gone mad. A soldier is not a policeman.”
The Sentinelle force has been used to guard key government buildings around the country since a spate of terror attacks in 2015. But the French army has been deployed against civilians in the country only very rarely since a harsh crackdown on striking miners after the second world war, analysts said. In 1992, military vehicles were used to remove roadblocks set up by striking truck drivers.
“We haven’t known this since 1948,” said Sebastian Roché, a policing expert from Sciences Po Grenoble. “This weekend will be pretty critical.”
Mr Macron said on Friday that the issue had been overblown and that the Sentinelle forces would not do police riot-control work. “In no case is the army in our country in charge of public order,” he said after an EU summit in Brussels. “We have simply mobilised them more . . . Everybody should calm down.”
Recommended Anne-Sylvaine Chassany Macron’s response to the ‘gilets jaunes’ taps French thirst for debate Florence Parly, defence minister, portrayed the military mission as one designed to relieve other security personnel overburdened by more than four months of anti-riot work every weekend. “The idea is to replace police officers and gendarmes in certain cases where they are performing tasks that the Sentinelle operation can achieve,” she said in an interview in Le Parisien.
Mr Macron and his government have struggled to deal with the uncoordinated gilets jaunes movement since it began in November last year as a provincial motorists’ protest against rising fuel prices.
In December, the president announced a government financial package worth more than €10bn to soothe concerns about the cost of living, and in January launched a two-month “great national debate” to address some of the issues raised.
The number of those protesting across the country had started to fall until the gilets jaunes — whose city-centre demonstrations have been infiltrated by militants of the extreme left and right — announced a big Paris protest last Saturday to mark the end of Mr Macron’s debate.
The anti-riot tactics of the French police, which involving firing missiles such as rubber bullets, tear gas canisters and stun grenades from a distance, have also been criticised. More than 20 demonstrators have lost an eye since November 17.
Police trade union representatives complain that they are dealing with extremists determined to wreak havoc. “Those who remain in the gilets jaunes like the casseurs (wreckers) who take advantage of the demos to smash things up, they are really very radical militants,” said Laurent Bouvet, politics professor at the University of Versailles.