Tensions between French police and "Yellow Vest" protesters have grown over law enforcement's use of force and specialized weapons to quell the demonstrations.
French police were armed with LBD-40 defensive ball pitchers during the latest demonstration on Saturday, which deploy golf ball-sized rubber bullets. Jérôme Rodrigues, a prominent figure in the movement which began as a protest over rising fuel costs, was hit by one of the bullets over the weekend, injuring his eye and leaving him "handicapped for life," his lawyer said, according to the New York Times.
As the violence associated with the protests increases, members of French Parliament began debating an anti-riot bill on Tuesday, France 24 reports. The controversial legislation would ban those inciting violence from attending future rallies, and also seeks to hold rioters accountable for damage caused as a result of demonstrations.
Since its inception last November, 11 people have died in the protests and thousands have been injured. At least 15 people have sustained serious eye injuries, including Rodrigues, who now wears an eye patch, and a police officer, according to The Local. Four people have also reportedly had parts of their hands blown off by "dispersal grenades," which explode and launch smaller rubber pellets.
Many of the recent injuries are said to have been caused by the LBD-40s, weapons used only by French and Northern Irish police. The launchers project 1.6 inch wide rubber bullets, which have been dubbed "flash-balls" by protesters. The ball “rips the skin apart and can fracture the bones, as if someone had been violently hit with a truncheon,” Parisian facial surgeon Chloe Bertolus told the New York Times.
Earlier this month, a man was in a coma for six days after being hit in the hit with one of the "flash-balls."
The "Yellow Vests," or "gilets jaunes," began as a grassroots movement online that has since snowballed into a massive force. Protests began in response to President Macron's increased diesel tax on French citizens, which he later abandoned in response to the outbreak of violence. At that point, however, it was too late - the movement had begun to represent an opposition to wealth disparity in France, and a rallying cry for those advocating for social change, including increased salaries, pension and and minimum wage.
Jean-Marc Michaud, an activist who also lost his eye in the Yellow Vest protests, says the French government is trying to stop peaceful citizens with force.
“The government claims that we are looters and violent protesters, but so many of us are just peaceful civilians,” he said. “The government isn’t listening to us, and now they are trying to silence us with repression in the streets.”
As the movement picked up speed, it has become marred with reports of anti-Semitic incidents. On one occasion in December, a group of marchers sang a song which employs an inverted Nazi salute as an associated gesture, and later harassed an elderly Holocaust survivor on the subway. As a growing number of extremists appear to be taking foot in the movement, marchers have attempted to push back against the reputation of a far right organization.
On Saturday, a meeting of Yellow Vests in Northern France reasserted that they are “neither racist, nor sexist, nor homophobe."