At Paris’s Milipol Convention, Smiling Far-Right Politicians Play With Sniper Rifles

Milipol is the world’s biggest trade fair for homeland security. Last week’s event in Paris was a photo op for far-right politicians like Éric Zemmour that illustrated how the French state is militarizing its response to social protests.

Far-right politician Éric Zemmour points a sniper rifle at journalists on scene at Paris's Milipol convention. (Twitter)

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the MC announces, grabbing onlookers’ attention, “we’re going to begin the third demonstration: a descent-by-rope operation. As you can see, we have two activists, suspended from a rope after hanging up a banner. Our intervention has been requested to remove this banner and take the two activists into our care.”

Two special-ops officers attach themselves to the tightrope and carefully lower themselves from the convention center’s rafters. Two hooded mock activists dangle a few meters below them. At the center of the scene: a tarpaulin emblazoned with a black-gray eagle in the crosshairs of a sniper rifle — the insignia of the Paris police’s crack Brigade d’Intervention.

“We’re going to come to the activists from above in such a way as to allow us to detach the two people,” the narrator continues. “Once an intervention’s begun . . . they’re under our legal responsibility, so we’re obliged to conduct the operation safely, both for the operators and for the activists we’re removing.”

The whole vignette is over in three minutes. After rolling up the nefarious banner and cradling their respective activists, the two police officers gracefully descend to the ground amid polite applause.

Pacification is an art and a science, as well as a business, for the conference-goers at Milipol, the global security industry trade fair held at the Villepinte convention center, just outside Paris. Between October 19 and 22, the conference brought together police commissioners, European government officials, rank-and-file officers, and hundreds of contractors and equipment suppliers for four days of camaraderie, networking, and business deals.

“For European security businesses and public buyers, it’s the equivalent of the Las Vegas Security Expo,” one saleswoman told me, a rep for Steiner Optics, owned by Beretta — combining the best of German optical engineering with the iconic Italian gunmaker. A display case along the aisle offers a sampling of plastic dummy rifles, each affixed with a Steiner brand scope.

The exchanging of handshakes, business cards, and LinkedIn profiles may take primacy over the actual signing of contracts — but if there’s a one-stop shop for all your security needs, Milipol would be it. Flame-resistant textiles of any application, color, and shape. Glock handguns. Hazmat suits. Police-issue BMW motorcycles. Swiss Army knives. Tear gas grenades, rubber bullets, and the whole gamut of “nonlethal” weaponry. Crowd-control shields and barriers. Anti-industrial-espionage, data-protection suitcases and phone holders. Bomb-removal robots. Isolation chambers. Garret metal detectors. Bulletproof glass. Surveillance cameras. Radioactivity-detection screeners. Police body cameras and tasers. Saab motor solutions for the CBRN — chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear materials — threat. Guardrails. Mobile vehicle barriers. Whole wardrobes of body armor and riot gear for human and canine alike.

The Seoul-based JINO Motors presents itself as the “global No. 1 riot control vehicle.” Their twin-turreted mobile water cannon truck, the Dreadnought-class battleship of protest management, boasts a seventy-meter range from the main guns, with both straight-firing and spray mode. Side ducts and rear nozzles offer full 360-degree protection from protestors. For total strategic operability, however, there’s the JINO barricade truck, with a single “blind-spot-free” water cannon. Folding out from the sides are two separately deployable walls, allowing the truck to extend its front facade to up to eight meters.

Special (Photo) Ops

Milipol may be a showcase event for the global security industry, but French politics were not far from sight, especially with presidential elections due next April. The twenty-second rendition of the world’s “leading event for homeland security and safety” enjoyed its usual parade of public figures looking for a photo op and the chance to display their solidarity with a key constituency. Gérald Darmanin, Emmanuel Macron’s interior minister, inaugurated the conference with a tour on Tuesday. On Thursday afternoon, a rather glum looking Jordan Bardella, the newly appointed president of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party, made the rounds. When I saw him discussing with a handful of gendarmes, admiring a line of national police service vehicles, it was not difficult to notice his discomfort and anxiety: Where were the swarms of reporters and admirers leaning in for a snapshot and a handshake?

No doubt to Bardella’s dismay, the belle of the ball at this year’s Minipol was Éric Zemmour, the far-right polemicist on the cusp of officializing his candidacy for France’s 2022 presidential election. Zemmour will surely need a militarized and muscular police force: his plans centrally include pledges for mass deportations of immigrants, including the stripping of nationality of “unassimilated” dual citizens. On home turf at Milipol, Zemmour depicts France being trapped in a life-and-death struggle with both Islamic civilization and the relativists and bien-pensants emasculating a once virile nation. In the viral video of his visit to the event that surfaced last Wednesday on Twitter, Zemmour — himself a pure creation of the French media’s appetite for shock — stares down the scope of a military-grade sniper rifle, pointing the gun at the journalists on scene.

When I first caught up to Zemmour, he was thronged by fans, audio booms, and cameras. BFMTV, CNews, LCI — three national news networks — as well as the scrappy crew from Livre Noir, a young YouTube channel for the French far right’s online netherworld, were there to capture the spectacle of their colleague gone rogue. Zemmour was chatting business with executives for Chiron, a security consulting firm in the Paris area that offers a wide range of services, from training sessions and target practice for police officers and other public servants to advice on site-specific securitization and even simulation workshops for actors and stunt doubles.

Naturally, Zemmour’s trip through the convention hugged tightly to the big-ticket items of the French security industry. After slaps on the back and a round of handshakes, he weaved down the lower aisle toward Arquus, a Gallic subsidiary of the Volvo Group, climbing aboard and manning the steering wheel of their hulking Humvee-like vehicle. After he moved on to admire Airbus’s new line of drones, I spoke with a saleswoman about the contraption, a tactical vehicle designed and manufactured in France featuring an enormous deployable gangplank ladder on its roof.

The Sherpa Light — one struggles to imagine what it’s “light” in relation to — is the modern-day equivalent of the siege tower. The video simulation of a test run shows the truck arriving aside, and lowering its ladder over, a “terrorist-occupied” double-decker bus, the sales rep said. But it’s not difficult to imagine it being useful in any occupation scenario, terrorist and civilian alike, the continuum of disturbances that keep the attendees of Milipol up at night. Jacobin was told that sales contracts have recently been concluded with the Indian and Moroccan governments.

Abelliom is a defense tech start-up based in Tarbes in southwest France. Its flagship invention is called the RiCA, a new “nonlethal, remote-controlled launcher system for large disturbances control.” In more concrete terms, this means a twin-barreled, tear-gas-launching howitzer, affixable to vehicles or stationary locations such as embassies, ministries, or any government building needing “sensitive site protection.” The two barrels can carry up to seven kilograms of payload, are automatically reloadable, and can fire up to 250 meters. The posters behind the prototype on display show a montage of scenes of riot police facing off against gilets jaunes protestors. The fine print on the brochure reads “do not leave in public space.”

Milipol is a showcase for the future of policing: the seemingly inexorable trend toward more firepower and ever more creative ways of delivering it. Like Abelliom, the Etienne Lacroix Group also specializes in ostensibly “nonlethal” crowd control. Via its subsidiaries like Alsetex or the Spanish-based Falken SA, it produces a range of tear gas grenades and launchers.

Alsetex was singled out during the gilets jaunes crisis as one of the French government’s main suppliers of highly noxious tear gas grenades, used abundantly alongside eye-gouging and appendage-cracking flashballs in the police repression of the social movement. In late March 2019, protestors even tried to block access to the company’s factory in Précigné, western France. In a December 2019 scoop by Mediapart, it was revealed that Alsetex had notified the government of the mutilating and potentially mortal defectiveness of its signature GLI-F4 grenade, which lets off a small explosion before it releases gas. In January 2020, then interior minister Christophe Castaner announced the replacement of the GLI-F4 by the GM2L, also produced by Alsetex, ostensibly devoid of the explosive element though still capable of causing deafness and other lifelong bodily injuries thanks to the air compression necessary to produce the 160-decibel bang.

The new Land Leopard-12 aspires to be the gatling gun of tear gas. A stationary version of the handheld launchers currently used by French riot police, its twelve grenade-launching barrels are arranged in three columns, pointing upward at a sixty-degree angle, making it something of a rapid-firing mortar. The salesperson told Jacobin that it has yet to be put into use in France or Europe, but has already been sold to several countries in Africa, though he wouldn’t say which countries had purchased it.

But this was child’s play next to Falcen-Alstex’s other new toy, the result of an emerging partnership with Milton, a French unmanned aerial vehicle firm. The prototype on display is your standard propeller-driven drone. Its belly, however, carries a rack of some ten small tear gas grenades, raining order from above. The new device still needs to gain authorization, the sales rep acknowledged: “It’s complicated, because it’s a new way of doing this sort of thing.”

Identifying the Enemy

The real art of power, however, is preemptive, not reactive or dissuasive. Order through sheer force alone has a bluntness and lack of subtlety that risks weakening its effect, or worse, only feeds disobedience. Make no mistake about it, the balance of power between state and citizenry has long since irrevocably tipped in the former’s favor. But, Edmund Burke argued, a truly “sublime” order must above all stoke the astonishment that comes with the sensation of the infinite, and one’s own personal insignificance: “When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight.”

Indeed, the real power brokers at Milipol — the real innovation, confidence, slickness, and ingenuity — were the marketers in data security, analysis, and farming, in mass population surveillance, filtration, and control. Lethal and “nonlethal” projectiles, water cannons and gas howitzers aboard tank-like trucks, grenade-carrying drones — these medieval technologies ignore (or belie) the aspiration that security should be self-sustaining, intimate, and invisible. The real hope at Milipol is that perpetual order will come through the knowledge that every contingency and eventuality can be identified, algorithmized, and variablized.

Thales is a French multinational that produces everything from classic military and aerospace hardware to sophisticated computing technology and data analysis systems. At Milipol, however, the later took center stage, with corporate representatives showing off the group’s pioneering products related to the “safe city,” classic surveillance and location control, and the “smart city” of global urban management synchronizing traffic and transportation control, waste and water management, and energy use. Though these systems have been used in isolated circumstances so far, the group hopes to finalize a contract for the 2024 Paris Olympic games, which may serve as a large-scale, inaugural, and well-publicized debut.

The corollary of homeland security is the hermetic sealing of frontiers, which is where companies like the Hungarian firm Logipix come in. Thanks to its state-of-the-art high-resolution panoramic camera, the group hopes to revolutionize border surveillance, with its cameras already in use surveilling large areas such as airports in New York and Mumbai.

Logipix’s marquee product is a hulking metal box roughly one-meter wide, with a bugeye-like face peppered with some two dozen lenses. With a forty-degree field of vision, this 320-megapixel camera can identify targets within a three-square-mile area. But what sets the Logipix camera apart from an already flushed surveillance camera competition is the way it handles this sensory information.

“The key is where we are doing the processing,” the group’s CEO told me. “Having so many high-frequency sensors generates a lot of data. Today what everyone is doing is using the standard high-definition Chinese cameras. They try to deliver the stream to the center and, in the center, there are some clever software engineers decompressing the stream . . . but between compression and decompression, a lot of small details are lost.”

But there’s a more “clever way of doing that,” he clarified. “The video processing, the image processing — capturing the humans and animals and tracking them — should be performed inside the camera, before the compression. If you have already done this work, you could increase the number of sensors because everything is processed locally.”

Still, there is only so much that can be gleaned through a surface-image reproduction of the present, however sophisticated it might be. Real security demands knowledge of time and the past, which is why the tracking and surveillance of search records and other forms of personal data are such invaluable forms of information for intelligence services.

Owlint was one of the handful of young companies that had the chance to give an elevator pitch at Milipol’s start-up stage. The firm proposes software to companies and other large-event organizers that would allow them to filter and screen attendees’ and employees’ “digital footprints” for warning signs of potential disturbances. Claiming to be fully compliant with European data-protection laws, the software is essentially a turbo-powered form of Google search, allowing the user to cross-reference an individual’s name with red-flag keywords.

The example used in the pitch was a large event involving some twenty thousand individuals and nine hundred staff, and showed how a pyrotechnic attack could have been averted had the event’s organizers conducted a thorough screening of its employees. The suspect individual, Philippe Cavalieri, was revealed to have been a neo-Nazi sympathizer by the search. But his identity was uncovered thanks to a search that referenced his name alongside such threatening terms as “social movements” and “environmentalism.” No doubt Owlint could also be helpful in keeping unsympathetic journalists out of Milipol.