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UN rights head urges probe of force used in ‘Yellow Vest’ protests

The United Nations rights chief called Wednesday for a “full investigation” into the possible excessive use of force by French police during sometimes violent “Yellow Vest” demonstrations.

“The ‘Gilets Jaunes’ have been protesting what they see as exclusion from economic rights and participation in public affairs,” Michelle Bachelet said in her annual address to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.

“We encourage the government to continue dialogue — including follow-up to the national discussions which are currently underway — and urge full investigation of all reported cases of excessive use of force,” the former Chili president said.

Sometimes violent “Yellow Vest” demonstrations have taken place across France since November. Protests began over fuel taxes but mushroomed into a revolt by people in rural and small-town France against President Emmanuel Macron’s policies.

French government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux expressed surprise at France being criticised by Bachelet along with countries such as Sudan, Haiti and Venezuela.

“The level of economic and democratic inclusiveness in France is — according to UN standards — one of the highest in the world,” he said, while stressing that Paris always follows “the very useful recommendations put forward by the United Nations.”

Griveaux noted that the IGPN, the body that investigates police abuses, has launched 162 investigations into the conduct of officers during the protests.

In her speech, Bachelet also spoke of people worldwide who have taken “to the streets to protest inequalities and deteriorating economic and social conditions.”

“Their demands call for respectful dialogue and genuine reform,” she said.

The use of rubber bullets by security forces has become a major source of controversy in France because of dozens of injuries.

But French campaigners recently lost a legal bid to force police to stop using them.

Some 1,900 people have been hurt in demonstrations since November, with some losing eyes or hands.

Eleven people have also died, all but one a victim of traffic-related accidents linked to “Yellow Vest” road blockades.

The government has defended the police use of both rubber bullets and stun grenades as necessary to guard against violent elements among the demonstrators who have repeatedly attacked security forces.

Last week, some protesters in the southern town of Montpellier threw bags filled with fecal matter and acid at police.

The UN criticism follows that two weeks ago by the Council of Europe rights group which urged France to halt the use of rubber bullet launchers.

French authorities “should suspend the use of LBDs during operations aimed at maintaining public order,” the council’s human rights commissioner Dunja Mijatovic said in a statement.

She also urged the government to review its regulations soon on the use of so-called intermediate weapons for riot control, to ensure they respect law enforcement’s primary task of protecting “citizens and their human rights.”

The reported injuries “raise questions about the compatibility of the methods used in operations aimed at maintaining public order with due regard for these rights,” Mijatovic added.