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France's 'yellow vest' protests could provoke constitutional crisis - expert comment

Dr Oliver Davis, Reader in French Studies comments on the ongoing 'yellow vest' protests in France and warns of a possible constitutional crisis.

"The recent warning by the French government that there could be deaths in the protests anticipated this weekend is a very disturbing development. The warning is double-edged: it allows the government to appear to be interested in the protection of its citizens, but at the same time it gives a green light to elements within the police to use even greater violence against protestors.

"Although French riot control police are well trained in techniques of temporary incapacitation - tear gas and stun grenades, in particular - every officer also carries a firearm for their own protection. The danger with this warning is that it puts nervous or politically radicalised elements within the police on edge in a way that makes it more likely they will open fire on demonstrators, if only for their own protection.

"The deliberate use of lethal force by the police against demonstrators in France would dramatically escalate the conflict, likely turning violent protest into mass insurrection. As Maurice Grimaud, chief of Paris police during the Mai 68 protests, was acutely aware, the political consequences of such an incident in France would be disastrous for any government.

"In my view it is very significant that at this crucial moment what we don’t hear from the French government are instructions to their police to respect the rules of public order policing they have been taught in their training. While the eyes of the world will be on Paris this weekend – and we can expect to see the Right Bank, notably the area around the Champs-Élysées locked down, saturated with plain clothes and uniformed police – it is important to remember that this movement is now nationwide. It would only take lethal force to be used against protestors by one cornered officer in some provincial village backwater for this crisis to escalate into a major constitutional drama.

"A French tragedy is traditionally a play in five Acts. I suspect that whatever happens tomorrow – ‘Act Four’, as the gilets jaunes have called it - this won’t be the end of the protests.

"Macron is known to admire De Gaulle’s aloof style of presidential leadership, a style permitted him by the constitution of the Fifth Republic which his advisors drafted when he seized power in the midst of the Algerian War. But if Macron’s government continues in the way it seems intent on doing, with piecemeal concessions and tacit encouragement to the police to use greater violence, rather than a meaningful change of overall policy direction, there is a danger that the gilets jaunes will see to it that he is the last president of the Fifth Republic.

"Calls for major constitutional reform, deeper democratic engagement of the population and a Sixth Republic will become impossible to resist."

7 December 2018

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