Two French police get suspended jail terms for 'yellow vest' violence

Violence flared during the May 1 yellow vest demonstrations (AFP Photo/Zakaria ABDELKAFI)

Paris (AFP) - Two French policemen were handed suspended jail sentences on Thursday for violence against "yellow vest" protesters on May 1, the first convictions of law enforcers since the anti-government revolt started more than a year ago.

One officer was given a two-month suspended sentence for hurling a paving stone at demonstrators.

The other policeman, who slapped a protester, received four months suspended.

Critics have regularly denounced heavy-handed policing tactics during the weekly protests over a perceived loss of spending power, which began in November 2018 and often spiralled into vandalism and running battles with police.

According to an official count, about 2,500 demonstrators and 1,800 security force members have been injured in the protests.

Two videos emerged of the incident in which an officer can be seen picking up a pavement stone and hurling it at demonstrators about eight metres (25 feet) away. It cannot be seen where the stone lands.

The court found the policeman filmed had not acted in self-defence, and was seeking to deliver a "physical or psychological shock" to make protesters stop throwing projectiles.

The officer will continue working, as the court decided to not enter the conviction into his criminal record.

In his defence, the policeman had told the court he acted "out of fear" and not anger, and threw the stone to "create some distance" for security reasons, but did not wish to hurt anyone.

Prosecutors had sought a three-month suspended sentence.

- Eyes, hands lost -

The other policeman was found guilty of slapping a yellow vest protester in a confrontation that was also captured on video. He was also fined 1,000 euros in damages. He too will be allowed to continue working.

Demonstrators accuse police of using excessive force to suppress the movement, in particular by shooting rubber bullets which activists say have caused some two dozen people to lose an eye.

Yvan Assioma, secretary general of the Alliance police union, described the sentences as "severe".

"You have to put things in context. That was a particularly difficult day," he said of the May 1, Labour Day protests.

"And after five months of 'yellow vest' protests, fatigue had set in," he added.

The IGPN police oversight body is investigating 212 cases of alleged police brutality during the yellow vest protests.

Fierce violence that flared during the protests made headlines worldwide, with rioters running amok in Paris and other cities, smashing shopfronts, torching cars and looting businesses.

Activists say that in addition to those blinded, five yellow vest protesters have lost a hand as a result of police stun grenades while one lost a testicle, and dozens sustained other injuries.

The protests erupted on November 17 last year over a planned fuel tax increase, which quickly snowballed into a general revolt against President Emmanuel Macron's policies.

His critics accused the former investment banker of ignoring the daily struggles of the working poor in rural and small-town France.