Sending in the Troops

François Bonnet
David Broder

Emmanuel Macron’s decision to use the army to repress the Yellow Vests represents a desperate bid to project a tough-guy image.

French riot police guard the famous Sacre Coeur Baslica during Yellow Vests protests on March 23, 2019 in Paris, France. Kiran Ridley / Getty Images

Emmanuel Macron’s decision to mobilize troops on Saturday 23, in a bid to hold back the Paris gilets jaunes demonstrations, was a move unseen in France since the great strikes of 1947–48. In fact, across recent years, we have seen a gradual criminalization of social movements and the rolling-back of civil liberties. And as a man without either limits or historical memory, president Macron has just taken things to a new level.

It’s worth acknowledging just how grave his move was. The announcement of the decision to reinforce the “Sentinel Mechanism” — deploying between seven thousand and ten thousand soldiers in Paris to hold back possible gilets jaunes protests — marks a historic rupture in the French republican order. Such a reading is only confirmed when we see the theater surrounding the decision, as the government sought to ram home what it was doing.

This was a measure taken by Macron personally — he emphasized — which was then announced to the cabinet. Government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux explained “We cannot let a tiny violent minority wreck our country and damage France’s image abroad.” The decision came at the end of several days of public statements by both the head of state and his interior minister. They promised to cast lightning bolts against future protesters, in the wake of the serious clashes on the Champs-Élysées the previous Saturday.

The executive thus opted for a direct standoff between the army and the people. One MP from Macron’s own party, quoted in Le Monde, warned “You want public order? That implies going onto the offensive. We may fear people being wounded or even killed.” It’s hard to tell if we are still in France, here. Imagine if far-right Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini said such things or took such measures, or if Hungary’s nationalist prime minister or Vladimir Putin in Russia did the same. There would be an immediate outcry.


In fact, the package of measures used, Operation Sentinel, is an anti-terrorism mechanism. It is supposed to protect the population against various kinds of attacks. But its responsibilities are very specific and the framework for an intervention is carefully delimited.

Yet today this anti-terrorism measure is instead used against a social movement and against demonstrators — without this sparking any vast wave of indignation. In the meantime, the executive has been striving to win the battle over words: the demonstrators have been called “seditious,” a “hateful mob,” “brutes,” and now “rioters” who want to “overthrow the Republic.”

Never lacking for arrogance, Ségolène Royal [a leading member of the Socialist Party] gave a fine summary of what ruling circles are thinking, or indeed saying to each other: “I wondered why it hadn’t been done earlier … Sure, the black bloc are not terrorists, but they do sow terror. So it’s the same thing.” Jean Jaurès — a Socialist leader in a quite different era — described this same battle over words back in 1912: “One of the bourgeoisie’s classic moves when a word has stopped frightening people is to bring up another… For a generation the bourgeoisie believed that it was enough to denounce the risk of ‘socialism’ in order to make the country afraid. But when it got used to socialism, it was time to use the word ‘sabotage’ instead.”

The result of all this is that the black bloc have won: they’ve shown what they wanted to. Their strategy, in organizing a systematic confrontation with the forces of order, is and has always been to show that the deeper nature of any capitalist state is authoritarian and dictatorial. And here we are, with the state mobilizing troops to restrain (and the better to repress) a social movement now considered an “enemy within” — which, as several bills remind us, is the only reason the army can be deployed on French soil.

Government spokesman Griveaux said that “The Sentinel mechanism [would] have to secure static and fixed points and allow the forces of order to concentrate on movement and the maintenance and re-establishment of order.” A further explanation came from the prime minister’s office: as far as possible, soldiers would not enter into direct contact with demonstrators. Supposedly, this was all just a matter of freeing up gendarmes and police who would otherwise have been tied up in static guard duties (at the Élysée presidential palace and the prime minister’s office, as well as ministries and key administrative centers). According to this narrative, the troops would not directly take part in keeping order.

But such claims were nothing more than one fat lie. For the thousands of soldiers who were mobilized were indeed part of one combined set of measures for keeping order. For nothing could rule out the possibility of standoffs between the army and demonstrators, not least given that gilets jaunes demonstrations’ routes are never fixed in advance, and they often zigzag through Paris in unexpected directions.

A look at the last four and a half months of demonstrations shows how serious the consequences of this deployment may be. Indeed, there is nothing to rule out the possibility that over-excited groups of protesters (black bloc-ers, gilets jaunes, or others) caught in police charges or avalanches of tear gas or flashballs will not clash with the troops who are officially there for the sake of guarding public buildings.

And then what? “What comes next? Will soldiers shoot? Policing is a job that needs training! Whatever the circumstances, the army cannot and must not carry out any police tasks,” Jean-Luc Mélenchon protested last Wednesday on the BFN News channel. When Macron ally François Bayrou himself spoke on the situation, Mélenchon responded “You lot have gone mad!” This objection echoed that of center-right MP Charles de Courson, who was indignant at the government’s “anti-hooligan law.” “But where have we got to? Wake up, my dear colleagues! This is a totally wrong path. It’s pure folly to vote through this text! It’s like we’re back under the Vichy régime!”

Even the senator Bruno Retailleau, who has made raising the stakes on security matters his own stock in trade, had questions: “What will happen if a group of black bloc-ers physically confront soldiers near the Champs-Élysées? Soldiers are not trained in keeping order. They are trained in fighting, in waging war, in responding to assailants by armed force.”

Indeed, Secretary of State for Defense Geneviève Darrieussecq — who has not publicly reacted to Macron’s move — had previously herself said the same thing. In a December 2018 interview on LCI she ruled out any mobilization of troops: “As for the army, no. Armies do not intervene in domestic public security missions. At present, armies’ enemy is terrorists,” she commented.

Another lie from the executive, moreover revealed by the theater surrounding the president’s own announcement, is the claim that this was not a political act but a merely “technical” move. A kind of pragmatism to calm the rank and file of the police and the gendarmes, exhausted by several months of demonstrations, and give a bit of grist to the mill of the police unions.

A History of Violence

But on Thursday, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner established a quite different kind of association. Since the clashes at the protests on March 16 Castaner had widely been accused of brutality, incompetence, and being unable to secure the obedience of the services that report to his ministry. So when he appointed the new Paris police prefect on Thursday, he claimed the mantle (and the protection) of World War I–era prime minister Georges Clemenceau. Referring to the policing of the demonstration, he had the audacity to proclaim “Your model is Georges Clemenceau. His hand never trembled when the task was to fight for France, and nor must yours.”

Here the interior minister was not talking about the Clemenceau of the Great War, but of Clemenceau’s record as interior minister. After the Courrières mining disaster in 1906, Clemenceau brought in the troops to bloodily crush the strikes in the coal mines. He then continued to violently repress workers’ movements over subsequent years. In a number of editorials that year Jean Jaurès angrily insisted that the deliberate political repression and bosses’ violence were themselves the cause of the workers’ own violence. A local paper in Lens wrote back then of how “The army is everywhere and is protecting public buildings like the Post Office and Lycée Condorcet.” The protection of public buildings by the army: just what the government again promises us today.

Macron’s government has thus chosen to follow in a particular historical tradition of bloodily repressing social movements. The army has not been called upon to intervene in such situations, ever since the great strike waves of 1947–48. Back then, the Communists had just left the ruling coalition (which had brought them together with the Gaullists and Socialists), the Cold War had begun, and the government of the young Fourth Republic decided to pursue “the enemy within.”

Back then it was a Socialist, the then-interior minister Jules Moch, who sent in the troops to beat down the miners. He mobilized sixty thousand CRS (riot cops) and soldiers to force the fifteen thousand strikers back to work. The army occupied the mine shafts. The result: more than three thousand workers sacked, six dead, and many injured.

Only in 2014 did the then-justice minister Christiane Taubira demand compensation for the families of the miners who had been illegally sacked.

Raising the Stakes

Emmanuel Macron’s choice did not result from pragmatism or the appropriateness of such a move. Rather, it emanated from a political decision to harden the apparatus for the repression of social movements yet further, the better to vaunt the president’s own credentials as upholder of the party of order. Even before this, the executive had generalized measures that had already been tested out in the quartiers populaires [working-class suburbs with large ethnic-minority populations] during the riots of 2005, and then honed and extended further under Nicolas Sarkozy (in crushing the resistance to his attacks on pensions) and François Hollande (in pushing through the Labor Law or “El Khomri Bill”).

Interior Minister Castaner and Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet have themselves equipped the repressive apparatus with new weapons. This has ranged from the systematic use of LBD (guns to launch flashballs and similar ammunition), to the intervention of volunteer plainclothes police (not trained in keeping order), massive and often illegal preventative detention, and so on. The deployment of troops last weekend is but part of the executive’s ongoing bid to raise the stakes and intensify a polarized and violent atmosphere.

This escalation is accompanied by the growing aggressiveness of both the prime minister and the interior minister. Indeed, most of their statements since March 16 sought to prepare public opinion for “accidents” — meaning, one or more deaths. “If we have a strategy that allows the forces of order to be more mobile, more dynamic, more firm, then there are more risks,” prime minister Édouard Philippe openly admitted on France 2 last Monday. If since at least 1968 governments have been obsessed with avoiding serious injuries or deaths, this is no longer a priority.

This directly poses the question of president Macron’s own role. Since November he has constantly identified himself with, and indeed demanded, a strengthening of the means of repression. We know the results: thousands of wounded, an elderly woman killed by a grenade in Marseillles, 22 people who have lost an eye and five who have had a hand torn off.

Macron’s response, last week? “The words ‘repression’ and ‘police violence’ are unacceptable in a state governed by the rule of law.” As the economist and philosopher Frédéric Lordon replied, “Under the rule of law what is unacceptable is not these words, but the things themselves. Faced with one person dead, 22 who’ve lost an eye and 5 who’ve lost a hand, you powder your wig and tell us ‘I don’t like the term repression, because it doesn’t correspond to the reality.’ The – almost psychiatric – question that follows from this is what reality exactly you see all around you.”

This is no mere rhetoric. It is now the question that weighs on a presidency caught in a dizzying slide into authoritarianism and self-regard. The Larousse dictionary tells us that an authoritarian is “he who uses all the authority he has without setting himself any limits.” And Macron’s use of public institutions and his handling of the media and public opinion seem to be truly without limit. Like when he boasted of speaking for eight hours and ten minutes to intellectuals whom he himself ignored, as if this were some sporting achievement of his.

Since May 1 2018 France has been embroiled in Benalla affair [in which Macron’s bodyguard impersonated a policeman in order to beat protesters; he was later found to be involved in shady business dealings]. The scandal has spectacularly revealed the malfunctioning of a presidency that disregards all rules. When the president’s force of persuasion crumbles, his authoritarianism takes over. The result is that the Élysée palace is now a haunted castle whose key figures have left, been moved along or even come under judicial investigation.

The political crisis this affair sparked, disorganizing the state apparatus (in particular the Paris police prefecture), has continued to worsen in subsequent months. Unable to find any political response able to pull the country behind him, or even to calm it, president Macron has no option but to intensify his authoritarian line. An approach that promises fresh drama, and fresh crises.