This article is a contribution by the Ligue des droits de l’Homme (France).
The right of protesters to oppose an irrigation basin in Sainte-Soline, Western France, was violently suppressed in March 2023. More than 200 demonstrators were injured, two of whom were in a coma after allegedly receiving crowd-control weapon impacts to the neck and head. Human rights observers witnessed authorities obstructing access to medical aid.
On March 25, 2023, police were posted around the construction site of the Sainte-Soline reservoir in Western France when a caravan of roughly 10,000 demonstrators arrived. Immediately, the 3,000 mobilized law enforcement officers opened fire against the environmental protesters opposing the construction of the mega-reservoir, one of 16 planned in the region. Since the beginning of the public inquiry in 2017 on irrigation basins, opponents have argued that these reservoirs would funnel the scarce water resources to the agroindustry’s sole benefit. Nonetheless, the project was cleared by authorities and construction in Sainte-Soline began in October 2022, despite lacking a final environmental impact assessment.
Answering the call of over a hundred organizations to stop the construction of the reservoir in March 2023, the procession of demonstrators reached the basin site where gendarmes fired at them continuously for two hours. A variety of grenades –some of military grade– were shot including tear gas grenades, stun grenades and explosive grenades of the GM2L, ASSD and GENL types. Rubber bullets were also fired with LBD 40 rifles. The Ligue des droits de l’Homme (LDH) link the use of chemical marking to at least two arrests, namely of one journalist. The total amount of grenades fired amounted to 5,000, about one per second.
Eighteen members of the Observatoires des libertés publiques et des pratiques policières (Observatories of Public Liberties and Police Practices, affiliated to the LDH) monitored the deployment. They noted that the firing of tear gas and explosive grenades was massive and indiscriminate, and at times directed at journalists, observers, elected representatives, injured protesters and demonstrators far removed from the site. Grenades were also fired in the direction of elected representatives forming a human chain around injured protesters, forcing them to move. Among the more than 200 protesters injured, two remained in a coma for weeks: Mickaël B. was impacted by a LBD 40 rubber bullet in the neck, while Serge D. likely received a tear gas canister in the head.
The monitoring team of l’Observatoire des libertés publiques et des pratiques policières reported a disproportionate use of force by authorities, as well as the deliberate obstruction of medical care by the commanding officer who denied access to a severely injured protester, citing clashes in the area where this person was located. However, the observations showed that during this time the area was calm and safe, several hundred metres away from the police and demonstrators.
The human rights observers question the official version of the unfolding of events and the evocation of “unprecedented violence” by France’s Minister of the Interior Gérald Darmanin. Rather, the observers conclude that the Gendarmerie’s tactic was hostile to protesters from the beginning and failed to seek to facilitate the right to peaceful protest of demonstrators and de-escalate tensions. This has been widely relayed in media and echoed by the UN Special Rapporteur on Environmental Defenders, Michel Forst.
The repression at Sainte-Soline prompted further nationwide protests against police violence in the following days. Several opposers of the Sainte-Soline reservoir are facing jail sentences while the families of the recovering coma patients filed a complaint alleging attempted murder and obstruction to medical assistance.
Read the complete report by the Ligue des droits de l’Homme here.