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  • French CRS riot police remove French youth and environmental activists as they block a bridge during a demonstration to urge world leaders to act against climate change, in Paris, France, June 28, 2019.

    French CRS riot police remove French youth and environmental activists as they block a bridge during a demonstration to urge world leaders to act against climate change, in Paris, France, June 28, 2019. | Photo: Reuters

Published 1 July 2019

"They opted for a strategy of gassing people 20 centimeters from their faces," said an activist named Flora.

French police drew heavy criticism on Monday after officers were filmed spraying peaceful climate activists in the face with teargas during a sit-in on a bridge in Paris last week.

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Interior Minister Christophe Castaner has ordered an investigation into the incident which ocurred on Friday during a protest by the "Extinction Rebellion" group over the government's environment policies.

A video shared on Twitter, and since widely broadcast on news channels, shows at least two officers spraying protesters at close range with cans of teargas while the demonstrators try to shield their faces, boo the police and shout "non-violent!"

The officers are then seen dragging the protesters off the street one by one.​​​​​​​ One demonstrator, who gave her name as Flora, told AFP that the police used teargas after some protesters that had earlier been forcibly removed from the sit-in returned to the scene.

The Paris police department said the officers had intervened to stop the protesters blocking traffic and that the demonstrators had been ordered "several times" to disperse, informing two people were arrested.

Images of the standoff caused an outcry both in France and abroad with Sweden's teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg tweeting a link to the video with the words: "Watch this video and ask yourself; who is defending who?"

"It's outrageous to have young people who are fighting for our climate, who are fighting for our future... and the government's only reaction is to not act and to teargas them," Yannick Jadot, a Green member of the European Parliament, told BFM news channel. Several left-wing French politicians condemned the treatment of the protesters in Paris.

Socialist leader Olivier Faure said, "that would not happen in a dictatorship and it's happening in France." Over the past year, Macron has come under growing criticism over what activists see as his failure to keep a 2017 promise to "make our planet great again."​​​​​​​

There was also disquiet among some members of President Emmanuel Macron's centrist Republic on the Move party with MP Barbara Pompili telling France 2 television she "like everyone, quite shocked at teargas being sprayed very close to people's eyes".

Launched in Britain, Extinction Rebellion organizes acts of civil disobedience to draw attention to climate warming. Last month the group took part in the blockade of an open-pit coal mine in Germany.​​​​​​​ 

Abuse of Power, a common occurrence?

French police have also been heavily criticized for their tactics during six months of weekly protests by anti-government "yellow vest" demonstrators.​​​​​​​ Officers have been blamed for a spate of serious injuries and even hand or eye mutilations caused by their use of rubber bullets and stun grenades.

French law enforcement is also under investigation over the disappearance of a 24-year-old man in the western city of Nantes on June 21, World Music Day.​​​​​​​

Steve Maia Canico went missing while taking part in a rave on an island in the Loire river that was broken up by the police using teargas following clashes with some of the revelers.

Several people who fell into the river during the melee were brought to safety but Maia Canico was never found. A march in his memory on Saturday in Nantes drew around 1,000 demonstrators.

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