29th Sep 2023

Police violence in rural French water demos sparks protests

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French protestors are set to gather across the country on Thursday evening (30 March) to demonstrate against escalating police violence in a dispute over agricultural reservoirs, particularly a bloody clash last week in Sainte-Soline.

On Saturday, 25,000 people assembled in the rural town in the Deux-Sèvres department in southwest France to protest against the construction of the water reservoirs, which protestors say amounts to the 'privatisation of water.'

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Photographer Joanie Lemercier, who attended the rally, told EUobserver violence erupted almost immediately when military police preemptively fired grenades at a portion of the crowd early in the afternoon on Saturday, which by the latest count left 200 people wounded, 40 of whom suffered severe injuries.

According to protest organisation Les Soulèvements de la Terre [Uprisings of the Earth], one person lost an eye to a police projectile, and two people are still in a coma as of Wednesday.

"Two demonstrators are still fighting for survival," the head of the French Greens Marine Tondelier, who attended the rally, said in a statement on Tuesday evening.

She called on her constituents to "join the rallies" on Thursday, which are to take place across the country in "support of the victims of police violence."

One of the victims was Serge Duteuil-Graziani, a 32-year-old man from Toulouse who was still in a coma and fighting for his life as of Thursday.

French prosecutors said they were probing the case after his parents filed a criminal complaint on Wednesday, accusing police of attempted murder. According to official police reports, there is "no evidence at this stage determining the cause of their injuries."

But an eyewitness told EUobserver he "was struck in the face by a grenade", a claim later echoed by Duteuil-Graziani's parents, who described his injury in a statement posted on Twitter on Wednesday evening.


The fight against the so-called mega-basins has been going on since 2017 when the Deux-Sèvres region, with support from French authorities, approved the construction of 16 such water reservoirs.

The basins are meant to irrigate farmlands during the summer and are filled during the winter by pumping up groundwater. But groundwater levels are already depleted, and NGOs, ecological farmers and climate activists who united under the banner 'Bassines Non-Merci' have warned pumping up water is a threat to the already depleted rivers, ecosystems and biodiversity in the region.

The basins are 70 percent paid for with taxpayer money, but according to the group, only five percent of the area's "industrial" farms will benefit from the water while the rest "suffers from the lack of water" and must adapt to further water restrictions. A claim supported by the Confédération Paysanne, an agricultural union for small farmers.

But the extremity of the violence has overshadowed the cause of the protest. The last demonstration in October also ended in a bloody clash, as the local government in the neighbouring Vienne department signed a deal to create 30 water reservoirs.

The police claim "a radical fringe" of some 1,000 protesters committed "extreme violence", resulting in four police vehicles burned and 61 officers injured.

According to official police accounts, 80 percent of them were injured protecting the artificial lake 'SEV 15' against "extremely violent attempts by black blocks to break through."

Interior minister Gérald Darmanin has since vowed to dissolve Les Soulèvements de la Terre, which he held responsible for material destruction.

But according to Lemercier, there was "nothing to destroy."

"The water reservoir is unfinished. It is an earthen dike, and the water is not yet covered by plastic," he told EUobserver. "Police vehicles caused much more damage to the farmlands."

In a fiery speech delivered in parliament, Thomas Dossuss, senator for the Greens in Rhône who attended the rally, addressed Darmanin, telling him: "we all denounce violence, but you decided to expose 3,000 members of the force to defend an empty hole at all costs."

A press release by the Coop de L'Eau 79, a local group overseeing the construction of the 16 water reservoirs in the region, later revealed a single irrigation pump had been damaged.


According to police figures published on Tuesday, the 3,000-strong force fired 5,015 tear gas grenades at the protestors, including 89 GENL de-encirclement grenades and 81 LBD shots (which stands for 'defence ball launches.')

In his report about Saturday's clash, the director general of the national gendarmerie Christian Rodriguez described the use of force as "proportionate." Tear gas canisters are "much less effective in open rural areas", adding that "massive use of these ammunitions is generally necessary."

But opposition parties, NGOs and climate activists were outraged by the use of GENL grenades and LBDs. "There has obviously been violence against police and gendarmes," said Tondelier. "On the other hand: the number of weapons used and the throwing of tear gas canisters at the wounded is a major democratic problem."

In a Tuesday press conference, Darmanin defended the use of force by the military police and claimed "no weapons of war" were used against protesters. But the use of tear gas grenades and LBDs has been criticised for years.

In December 2018, 80-year-old Zineb Redouane, a bystander at the yellow vest demonstration in Marseille, was shot in the face with a tear gas grenade and died in hospital the following day.

Although GENL grenades used on Saturday are a lighter variant than the MP7 grenade that killed Redouane, they are classified as a category A2 weapon in the Homeland Security Code, and therefore constitute as "war material".

Similarly, French trade union CGT and the French Human Rights League filed a legal case to force a ban on the use of LBDs–which are rubber balls the size of golf balls—after they were shown to have caused severe injuries during the yellow vests protests of 2018, including broken limbs, lost eyes and maimed hands.

France's top legal advisory body, the Council of State, threw out the case in 2019. However, according to Tuesday's police report, the "two non-lethal [LBD-]shots fired by the motorised intervention platoon" will be investigated by the General Inspectorate of the National Gendarmerie (IGGN).

Labelled 'S'

On Tuesday, French press, including Le Monde newspaper, revealed security forces had blocked access roads preventing health services from attending to the wounded.

It was later circulated that Duteuil-Graziani had been known to security services since 2017 and listed 'S' signifying 'state security', a label used for activists belonging to the "ultra-left."

"Yes, Serge was stuck with 'S' just like thousands of other activists in France today. Yes, he participated in anti-capitalist rallies, just like millions of workers fighting against pension reform," his parents wrote in a statement on Wednesday. "We consider these not criminal acts but acts to his credit."

According to Les Soulèvements de la Terre, protests will take place at 7pm in 90 villages and towns across France.


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