The indiscriminate use of chemical weapons by France’s security state on its own citizens has long been viewed as an acceptable part of everyday life. While police forces in countries such as Britain will only deploy noxious substances very occasionally, and in tiny measure, regular usage in France has become institutionalised.
Those of us who were out on the streets of Paris last Saturday were covered in vast white clouds of tear gas, from Place de l’Opéra to the Champs-Élysées itself. It was “Act V” of anti-government protests by the gilets jaunes movement – and tear gas, designed to inflict harm on the human body, was once again seen as the best way of controlling the protesters.
Never mind that tear gas is banned in warzones by international treaties: in France there is apparently nothing to prohibit officers of the law pouring it into crowds of men, women and children. I saw plenty of distressed boys and girls coughing and wheezing as they struggled to breathe, and their lungs and eyes burned. It was the same for others who also had absolutely nothing to do with the demonstrations – from asthmatic pensioners watching from balconies to terrified diners in the few restaurants that remained open during the disturbances.
What was particularly sinister about the freezing Paris streets on what should have been the penultimate shopping Saturday before Christmas was the presence of armoured vehicles containing huge quantities of a highly concentrated chemical powder. The Marianne news outlet revealed that this largely undefined compound could be spread across some 40,000 square metres in 10 seconds, “neutralising” anybody in the vicinity, whether rioters or innocent bystanders. Richard Carminache, a gendarme colonel, said it was as powerful as 200 grenades and would be a “last resort” if secure areas around the Élysée Palace and National Assembly were overrun.
There were already 8,000 armed security personnel searching and herding everybody in Paris, meaning the yellow vests were outnumbered by at least four to one. In which case, what was the point in adding motorised military hardwear and state-of-the-art chemical weapon dischargers to historic squares and boulevards? Veteran journalists who had worked in Eastern Europe during the Cold War suggested that the atmosphere was far more like that found in unruly satellite states under Soviet dictatorship than the normally glamorous capital of France in 2018.
The yellow vests started out campaigning against green taxes, which Macron wanted to add to petrol and diesel prices. In line with the Paris Agreement on climate change, the president said such policies were essential to reduce carbon emissions, so leading to an ecologically cleaner world. How hollow such pledges now sound, as he not only scraps the extra charges on fuel, but also authorises the escalating use of poisonous fumes in his own capital, and indeed other major cities such as Bordeaux and Marseille.
It was actually the French who first implemented tear gas as a chemical weapon on the battlefield, hurling 22mm grenades full of the lachrymator ethyl bromoacetate into German positions at the very start of the First World War in August 1914. By 1915, chlorine gas and worse was in artillery shells, causing the most horrifying massacres imaginable.
The International Committee of the Red Cross first banned chemical and biological weapons after the First World War, but still warns of a “slippery slope” that could see them reintroduced. The ban has almost inexplicably failed to extend to domestic riot control chemical agents such as tear gas. This raises the ongoing fear that the sort of compounds in Macron’s armoured cars could easily become stronger, to the point of causing fatalities.
There is still much scientific debate about the deaths of at least 200 civilians by gassing during the Moscow theatre crisis of 2002, when still unidentified chemicals were distributed by Russian special forces to end a siege by Chechen terrorists. One of the principal reasons for outlawing all chemical weapons would be to prevent security states developing ever more damaging products that are extremely difficult to analyse, let alone regulate.
France is actually a member of the Hague-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), but displays little enthusiasm for this type of control. On the contrary, establishment figures see few problems with high-density substances they know nothing about.
When I discussed Paris’s chemical powder-launching devices on Twitter, I was immediately reprimanded by a French diplomat. Aurélie Bonal, a press officer at the French Embassy in London, said it was “inaccurate” to describe teargas as a “chemical weapon”, and even rubbished this factual definition as unethical.
I believe Bonal was disturbingly wrong, as are all those who underplay the increasingly desperate measures that the Macron administration is taking to subdue dissenting French citizens, as well as those unlucky enough to be caught up in their protests.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies