This article originally appeared on VICE France
Around 400 people were arrested last weekend in France, as demonstrators protested in Paris as part of the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) movement – a series of large-scale protests calling for wide reforms, including a successful push to scrap the French government's planned fuel tax rise. Many of those arrested were ordered to stand trial immediately in hastily arranged emergency hearings the days following Saturday's riots. For the most part, the defendants I saw at the open hearings were standing in a court room for the first time in their lives; they had largely come to Paris from the suburbs to have their voices heard. Of course there were some opportunists, using the chaos to loot or lash out.
Most of the defendants ended up receiving suspended sentences and short prison terms, while some will have to wait a bit longer for a decision after further investigations. From the cases I observed, here are a few highlights – tales of alleged mistaken identity, accidental theft and unintended weapons.
A ROCK AND SOME ROCKS
Antoine regrets ever coming to Paris. Last Sunday, the 28-year-old carpenter who lives in a one-bedroom apartment in Bordeaux was arrested at around 7PM. He claims he was waiting patiently near the Place Charles de Gaulle junction when the police asked to search his bag. They found "a large rock with a scarf wrapped around it at the bottom of my bag," he tells the court, along with seven grams of coke and €662 in cash. He told police the drugs were for his own personal use, and that he had all that cash on him because he had lost his bank card the day before.
"What were you even doing there?" the judge asks Antoine. "I was fighting for global equality," he answers firmly. From here, Antoine launches into an unexpected lecture: "Madame, people can't earn millions playing soccer while others are dying of starvation." The judge wants to know what the rock was for and whether he had it in his hands when he was arrested. "Look at the CCTV footage," Antoine suggests. "Many of those cameras were destroyed, sir," the judge snaps back. Antoine is eventually given a suspended prison sentence and temporarily banned from traveling to Paris.
A tall guy with a builder's physique stands in the dock. Charles-Jean is a 22-year-old with no prior criminal record, works several construction jobs and lives with his mother in Fontainebleau. He admits to not cooperating with a police check last Saturday. "I wanted to go up some stairs when I suddenly found myself face-to-face with cops. I got scared so I ran," he recalls. When the police eventually caught up with him, their spot search found two small fireworks, the sort that even children are allowed to buy. But the court is treating this within the context of the day. "Do you realise that turning up at an event like this with fireworks is a bad idea?" lectures the judge. "I didn't know fireworks were banned," he calmly replies.
THE ONE WHO FORGOT ABOUT HIS KNIFE
Kevin wanted a photo to "immortalise the day", so he went back to Place Charles de Gaulle after the police had evacuated it. When an officer asked him to leave, he refused. "I was standing next to the Symbol of the Unknown Man," he tells the court. "The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier," the judge corrects, rolling her eyes. "That's when I bumped into two cops. My glasses fell off so I reached down to pick them up." It was in that short reach that all of Kevin's problems started. He was concealing a knife between his belt – "a habit", he explains. "Look, I couldn't even use the knife because my jacket was closed. If I had wanted to use it, I would have had to open it like this," he adds, demonstrating with his large parka. Nobody in the room appears to understand what he's talking about.
"MY ROCK WAS JUST A SOUVENIR"
The stories only get stranger as the day goes on. After a day of protesting, Bryan was looking for his car near Place Charles de Gaulle at around 1AM. He had a long journey ahead of him as he needed to get back to his small town. His yellow vest, ski goggles and gait caught the attention of a police patrol. Of course there was also the fact that Bryan was holding a bottle of whiskey in one hand, and keeping a rock hidden under his parka with the other hand.
The officers who stopped him noted that he "smelled strongly of tear gas". His gloves, they claimed, "had the strong odour of combustion smoke". In the dock, the defendant shakes his head in disbelief. Firstly, he claims he wanted to take the rock as a souvenir. "My grandmother did the same thing in 1986," he adds. As for the gloves, he admits to "picking up some gas bottles," but it was simply "to extinguish them in puddles."
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THE ACCIDENTAL THIEF
Yanis looks lost as he slowly shifts his frail frame towards the microphone. "The defendant is obviously not used to this sort of environment," the prosecution lawyer says. Speaking softly, the Parisian high-schooler recounts how he was stopped on Saturday night standing in front of the smashed window of a Burberry store. Nothing from the luxury brand was found on him – but Yanis did have two strobe lights in his bag, as well as an unopened perfume bottle, five baseball caps, cigarettes and a bluetooth speaker.
"I found it all on the street," Yanis insists. Unfortunately for him, investigators found incriminating text messages Yanis received two days before Saturday's riots from a mate. The messages largely describe some of the looting that had taken place at recent protests. One read: "They broke the Dior and Givenchy [window], here’s the stuff that's left, looks like they broke more windows, it'll be easy to take everything." Another message added: "Looks like they're gonna fuck shit up at LV and the FNAC, so you're gonna get your iPhone X free," to which Yanis responded, "Go ahead lol." His mother, who happens to be a lawyer, says she is "baffled" by his arrest. The judge concludes by saying, "Yanis had no good reason to be there that night, except to get into trouble," before handing him a two-month suspended sentence for the concealment of stolen goods.
THE GUY WHO SET FIRE TO A TRUCK
Nicholas, 20, bears the marks from a rough arrest. He drags his feet on the way to his seat in the booth. From Saturday evening through Sunday, he was detained for "violence toward police officers" and "hiding his face." As part of his defence, Nicolas is willing to admit that someone handed him an egg on the Champs-Élysées. He threw it and the egg landed on a car that was on fire. Nicolas is also willing to confess that he vandalised a piece of sheet metal on the sidewalk. As for hiding his face, he was wearing only a scarf and a hat, hiding his little goatee. Later, the court appears to acknowledge there's a chance Nicolas might not actually be the same person who attacked police officers, and have promised to carry out further investigations. "Coming back to the protests at night was the biggest mistake of my life," Nicolas concludes.
A HAMMER AND CHISEL
When the police stopped him beneath the Arc de Triomphe, Romain was armed with a hammer and chisel. "I'm currently doing some work on my grandmother's house," he says. Romain seems quiet in court, but he had a lot to say on the night he was arrested. "What did you plan to do with the rocks you knocked off with that hammer?" the police asked at the time. "Me? Nothing, but I know that other people are throwing them at the police," he replied. "And where did you find these rocks?" the police officer asked. "I saw them in the air," he claimed. The judge sentences Romain to six months in prison.
SETTING FIRE TO A DUMP TRUCK
Of all the cases today, Max* is facing the most serious charge. He is accused of stealing some of the commemorative gold coins on sale at the Arc de Triomphe; throwing objects at the police and setting a dump truck on fire. According to Max, the coins literally "fell out of the sky" and so he took one. On his phone, police found photos of Max vandalising a digger. In these images, he's kicking the machine then throwing stuff at officers who tried to stop him. "I was trying to tell them not to do this because we're all in this shit together," he tells the court. "I don't have anything against the police."
When questioned about the images, Max simply states that he "loves photography." He later claims that he's been personally affected by the tax increase as he struggles to make enough to cover his rent. But due to the number and seriousness of his crimes, the court sentences him to two years in prison.
*This name has been changed on request to protect the defendant's anonymity.