The viral image as proof. Videos of police violence in the Yellow Vests crisis

English version of: André Gunthert, “L’image virale comme preuve. Les vidéos des violences policières dans la crise des Gilets jaunes», Communications, n° 106, juin 2020, p. 187-207 (version française).

Abstract. At first denied by the government and blanked in the mainstream media, the theme of police brutality as part of the Yellow Vests conflict emerged on social networks in December 2018, through the broadcasting and discussion of a limited number of viral videos. Is this merely a manifestation of the mechanisms of proof through images, associated with participatory mediation? This paper sets out to analyze the narrative characteristics and media processes at work in specific circumstances to select and establish these videos as a reference corpus. By employing the copwatching frame of reference, online exchanges have built a controversial space based on the denunciation of visible acts as a true alternative to institutional media coverage. The belated coverage of police brutality in the mainstream news outlets attests to the fact that the Yellow Vests crisis has made social networks the catalyst of public debate today.

Among the many new aspects of the Yellow Vests crisis, its mediation within the public sphere bears the hallmark of the new digital communication tools that so powerfully influenced the way the revolt was perceived. The unprecedented contrast between the territorial and temporal scope of the movement and the relatively low number of protestors has already been stressed.1 This feature did not weaken the impact of the conflict in public opinion however. On the contrary, between late 2018 and summer 2019, its significance and challenges formed the crux of public debate, through the transmission of violent images, in particular viral videos, which were widely discussed on social networks and relayed by news channels.

This amplification is anchored in a long history of mediation of public unrest but it also marks a new development, thanks to the key role played by visual documentary evidence and online exchanges in elucidating events. Until then, accounts of social conflict had been heavily reliant on journalistic mediation. (Favre) In the wake of the prototype launched by the Arab Spring, (Riboni) however, the involvement of new protagonists, not only in the production but in the dissemination and feedback of information, was to alter the balance of public debate by providing autonomous narrative elements.

Initially contested by the authorities and blanked by the mainstream media, the theme of police violence first appeared on the social networks in December 2018 by means of online images. By January 2019 it had become one of the cornerstones of the conflict, overshadowing the actual demands of the Yellow Vests. Police brutality, which the press were slow to pick up on, then gradually came to be seen as the indicator of a failing democracy. On 7 March 2019, in a speech delivered in Gréoux-les-Bains, Emmanuel Macron deemed it “unacceptable under the Rule of Law” to refer to “police violence.” The same conclusion was ultimately reached in public opinion as well, although not in the way the President had intended. Borne out by an impressive number of viral videos, the excessive use of force and the curtailment of public freedom was now leading people to challenge the nature of the exercise of power itself. (Smolar)

Opening up the mediasphere

It was only once the conflict had peaked that the press began to focus on the repression. Le Monde paved the way by headlining the issue of police brutality in its 14 May 2019 issue, six months after the launch of the Yellow Vests movement. Libération waited until 15 November 2019 to coincide with the first anniversary of the conflict. According to commentator Paul Quinio, “the expression ‘police violence’, refuted by Christophe Castaner, [has] emerged as the rallying cry of this last turbulent year.” (Quinio)

The source of this new concern can be traced back to the columns of Le Monde. Two investigations, led by Nicolas Chapuis and Aline Leclerc, tackled the issue of excessive use of force and described the fear gaining protestors. Two contributions from the Editors in Chief then categorically condemned the way the government had allowed itself to be drawn into this “spiral of violence” while nevertheless failing to restore peace. All these articles cite the “videos” “circulating” or “doing the rounds of the social networks” (Chapuis) each one of them bringing further proof of police brutality. Although they provide invaluable testimonials, however, no detailed presentation is forthcoming. There are no sidebars to contextualize the anonymous, unreferenced sequences, and not a single image has been reproduced. At best, the journalists acknowledge them with a brief description, tagged with a date (“Protestors being beaten up in a Burger King in Paris in December 2018”, “The stitched head of the 19 year-old woman punched on the ground in Marseille on 8 December”). The underlying premise is that the documents are not only numerous and familiar to all but unequivocally authentic.

The curious presentation of these sequences reveals a tendency to rank them as an external documentary source. The viral videos appear to exist as objective social facts, their purpose being to track the protests and round off their description.

Le Monde did not stop there. Alone among the major media outlets, the newspaper carried out an in-depth analysis of video and photographic recordings showing a rubber bullet being fired by a defense ball launcher at Yellow Vest member Olivier Béziade during a police charge on 12 January 2019 in Bordeaux, causing severe injuries to his head. The paper summed up the results of its investigation in a 15-minute video reportage, published on its website on 17 October 2019. (Schirer, Balluffier)

Filmed from various angles by several witnesses, the scene has been meticulously reconstituted. The different sequences have been carefully edited, with 3D modelling replacing the missing passages, and are overlaid by a chronological timeline to ensure an accurate summary of the facts. The reportage concludes that the police took aim, quite gratuitously, at a protestor, although he was posing no threat and was in fact running away with his back turned. Another damning element incriminates the police officers responsible for firing the bullet. As passers-by attempt to lift the wounded man and ask them to call for help, a police officer, standing well away from the scene, retorts: “We can’t do that, call them yourselves”.

Not only did the police officers contravene the instructions specifying that the weapon must only be used in self-defense and should under no circumstances be aimed at the head, they also neglected their duty of assistance to victims of shooting attacks. The report also revealed that they had lied to the investigating team and to journalists, justifying the use of force by claiming they were preventing a computer store from being vandalized.

This powerfully effective demonstration sums up the issues at stake in the field of police violence. Throughout the conflict, the government authorities had been defending the classic “proportionate response” argument, which legitimizes the use of force by agents of the State, who are only supposed to retaliate if things get out of hand. The level of violence observed therefore depends on the violence shown by the protestors. If, however, force is used as a precautionary measure, as in Le Monde’s case study, the behavior of the police loses all credibility, reversing the roles by becoming in fact the cause of the crowd’s reaction. Whether it forms part of a preventive action policy, or whether the intention is to strike fear into the protestors, the recourse to systemic forms of dissimulation suggests that violent incidents of this kind are not simply one-off blunders but an integral part of a deliberate strategy that flouts the very essence of democratic rights. As such, the question of police brutality emerges as a key to interpreting the social conflict.

Getting the question aired in the public arena, by means of videos that according to Le Monde belonged to a canon that was now familiar to all, was nevertheless the result of a complex process. The social networks, implicated for several years as tools for disseminating fake news and propagating covert influences, did not carry much credibility. (Alloa) In order to restore a degree of authority that would enable them to hold their own alongside government bodies and news outlets, these channels were now reaping the benefit of exceptional circumstances. While the public nature of social conflict produces a directly accessible eventness, it is the new recording and broadcasting tools that boost its mediation. This diversification of viewpoints modifies in substance the restitution of a multiform event that only exists through its representation. Underpinned by the unusually protracted length of the crisis, the increasing number of standpoints fueled a self-evident criticism of the slant portrayed by the main media outlets, considered too close to the government line. It was the daily confrontation of this slant, juxtaposed with the accounts of protagonists or observers in the field, that in December 2018 turned the video rushes into a viable source of alternative mediation.2

In the two opposing camps, the argument of proportional response versus police brutality relied upon an iconographical goldmine, brandished as proof, which highlighted material damage on the one hand and physical injuries on the other. This visual dichotomy reiterated and accentuated the antagonism between the major media channels and the social networks. With the launch of Act 2 on 24 November 2018, the upsurge in the conflict was portrayed in most newspapers and television channels by incendiary imagery in which the fires ignited on the barricades became intertwined with the smoke from the tear gas—or in the wake of 1 December, by the mutilated head of the plaster copy of Rude’s Victory from the famous sculptural group adorning the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. The spectacular but entirely relative gravity of the damage (the head has since been restored) epitomized the hyperbole of an essentially symbolic form of violence. The shattered female face was perceived as an attack by vandals on the French Republic—an image driven home repeatedly by the conservative press.

Compared to the material damage, the depiction of physical violence posed a real problem to the major media outlets, used to shielding their audience from the sight of blood or open wounds. Whereas the internet became the repository of photographs or videos showing abusive police behavior, often posted by the victims themselves, the strictures of decency drove the mainstream press to sweeten the pill by showing emblematic attributes such as the imposing armor worn by the security and riot police. Only a few violations slipped through the net: the Communist daily L’Humanité, which brazenly published on its front page the bloody face of a “gueule cassée” [a reference to the disfigured veterans of the First World War], or the news website Mediapart, which synthesized in computer graphic form a methodical inventory of acts of violence, collated on Twitter by independent journalist David Dufresne (the reports emanate for the most part from documents in the form of photographs or videos, initially published by victims or witnesses). (Dufresne, Mediapart)

Conversely, the opportunity for self-broadcasting offered by the internet paved the way for a plethora of documents attesting to police brutality. Social networks, however, are not merely browsing spaces. Confirming their value in the context of social conflict, these documents also triggered numerous contradictory comments or judgments within the framework of a substantiated exchange of views that lent them solid argumentative value. Given the exceptional surge of attention caused by the anxiety-provoking news, social network discussion platforms became a public arena, (Cefai) and all the key players in the conflict, not least major media outlets on the look-out for new sources, began to scrutinize each and every exchange. The shift in the center of gravity of public debate was illustrated by the decision of fledgling press agencies and alternative media outlets to post their own free access videos on the same channels as the anonymous contributors. By opting for virality and online discussions as stepping-stones to a broader audience, to the detriment of commercial gain, they were corroborating the reconfiguration of the public sphere brought about by the crisis.

From copwatching to virality

Although the first two viral videos of police violence, filmed on the evening of 1 December 2018 in Paris, stirred up considerable emotion, they were not immediately recognized as documentary pointers in a new paradigm. Posted the next day on Twitter, one shows a brief altercation in the rue de Berri, recorded on a smartphone by a witness at his window. (Grégoire) Below, on the other side of the street, a man can be seen being brutally grabbed and thrown to the ground by three policemen, soon joined by others, who start kicking and bludgeoning the victim despite cries of protest from the onlookers. At no point in the 21-second video is any contextual element provided to explain the violence of the intervention.

The second video, which lasts 1 minute and 56 seconds, was released on YouTube on 4 December by the Hors-Zone Press agency and shows a similar scene featuring a group of CRS police beating up a number of people lying on the ground inside a Burger King in the Avenue de Wagram, filmed through the window by a journalist outside. (Hors-Zone Press) The fact that two photographers linked to Libération, Boris Allin and Martin Colombet, were on hand enabled the paper to cross-check the facts and recontextualize the scene. A number of Yellow Vests had forced open the door of the fast-food outlet in order to protect themselves from the billowing clouds of tear gas outside. The video continues uninterrupted as a police officer forces the cameraman to step back, recording the sound of his remonstrations with the camera turned towards the floor.

The virality of these two videos can be explained by their brief format and the immediate tangibility of the violence, compounded by the disproportionate number of aggressors and the passivity of the victims. In both cases, the brutality shown by the police officers patently exceeds their brief to restore order, as well as the guidelines governing the use of force. Although the creators of the two videos do not share the same status, both documents carry the hallmark of improvisation, by recording the event-in-progress, unedited and with live sound. In the context of the Yellow Vests protests, these formal characteristics act as a narrative pointer, in which the act of filming, along the lines of copwatching, takes on the role of civilian watchdog. The purpose of copwatching, which was made famous by the video of Rodney King being attacked in 1991 in Los Angeles, is to influence the behavior of the police forces by documenting their interventions on the public highway. (Meyer) Nevertheless, despite the fact that the second video contains an illegal act of restraint carried out by a police officer, the behavior of the police force appears to have been totally unaffected by the dissemination of these documents.

By then, however, the social image defended by the police, a prerequisite for copwatching, had already been shattered. The proof came in the form of a new video, filmed on 6 December 2018, not by an amateur or journalist this time but by an actual member of the police force, who posted it on his Facebook page like a trophy. The publication of this unbelievable 27-second sequence, showing 151 teenagers, some handcuffed, packed closely in rows, kneeling with their hands clasped on their necks, under the eye of several police officers, and accompanied by a sarcastic comment from the cameraman —“Have you ever seen such a well-behaved class”— represents, particularly in the case of minors, an illegal act of public humiliation. (Violences policières)

Copies were soon made and the document went viral on an unprecedented scale, both on Twitter and on Facebook. Whereas online exchanges had remained fairly modest in the wake of the videos showing physical assaults, the focus on a more symbolic form of violence unleashed a controversy that continued to unfold throughout the evening of 6 December. Emotion pervaded the social networks in a succession of appalled comments: “The violence of those images of school kids in Mantes-la-Jolie surrounded by police is just unbelievable”; “It makes me want to throw up. Tell me this isn’t for real”; “It’s the way the young people have been placed in postures reminiscent of summary executions that is so humiliating and unacceptable”; “This country is sick. I’m ashamed.”3

A second volley of comments soon contradicted these condemnations, however. As they monitored the exchanges in real time, the news channels and online articles recalled the context of the student demonstrations in Mantes-la-Jolie. The justification for such degrading treatment could allegedly be traced back to the disturbances caused by the students, who had set fire to dustbins, thrown stones and torched two vehicles. A large number of internet users praised the firm hand taken by the police authorities, viewing the forced compliance of the teenagers as the punishment such delinquents deserved.

This kind of argument inevitably called for more than indignation. Internet users began to draw parallels with similar situations or associate the video images with other examples of collective humiliation: prisoners of war, the Warsaw ghetto, the 1980 Turkish coup d’état, the ISIS executions, etc. (figs 8-9). This form of symbolic interpretation, which had seldom been applied to video documents, indicated that the participants in the debate were not merely aware of the visual information but were paying equal attention to the feedback, which played a part in influencing their judgment. This comes across very clearly in the following comment: “I saw the videos of Mantes-la-Jolie this evening. Shock. The video of those rows of school kids kneeling, some with their hands on their heads, others tied up, sent shivers down my spine. […] But then I read the reactions that were springing up all over the place. Full of indignation in the face of such inhuman treatment. But also, also… All those other comments, all that hatred.” (Elise V.)

This constantly recontextualised interpretation matches Charles Goodwin’s description of the debates triggered by the Rodney King video in 1991: “[…] the ability to see a meaningful event is not a transparent, psychological process but instead a socially situated activity accomplished through the deployment of a range of historically constituted discursive practices.” (Goodwin) The credibility of the video recording is a foregone conclusion but its deployment within the public arena also goes hand in hand with a discursive process, rendered even more complex by the inclusion of contradictory viewpoints. Any document given this degree of exposure must undergo a trial by contestation, initially to prove its authenticity and subsequently to determine the factors underpinning its interpretation. The launch of the debate surrounding its content sets in motion a selection of sequences, chosen collectively as purveyors of meaning: although the hundreds of sequences generated by each act of the Yellow Vests were rapidly published on the social networks, only one or two videos actually made the grade, after a lengthy process that often lasted into the Saturday night or Sunday following the protests. Editorial teams observed these debates, regularly picking up the sequences emanating from the participative selection, together with the elements of interpretation that had gone into that choice. Relying on the guaranteed sincerity of the video footage but also on the participatory designation of the most salient contents and the most damaging proofs, it was through their virality that the images acquired their documentary value.

On Saturday 22 December 2018, a new controversy was sparked by several videos showing four motorcycle police officers arriving at the intersection of the Champs-Elysées and the Avenue George V, just as the Parisian Yellow Vests protest was drawing to a close. At around 6 p.m. the news channels broadcast a spectacular scene in which the motorcycle police were punched and subjected to a hail of projectiles before attempting to push back their assailants. At 9.28 p.m., however, a new 2 minute 9 second video was published on Twitter by independent journalist Clément Lanot, showing the minute preceding this attack, in which the police can be seen throwing several stinger grenades into the peacefully marching crowd (Lanot). The document, which is remarkably clear considering the complexity of the altercation, therefore reveals the true cause, the apparent provocation stirring up widespread condemnation across the internet.

Yet another version, cut and re-edited, was released later the same evening in an attempt to prove that the demonstration had already begun to degenerate before the motorcycle police appeared on the scene. The sequence combines two separate moments from the march, however, and the clumsy editing precludes it as a serious document. By the end of the debate, through cross-referencing of several sources, the consensus laid responsibility for the attack with the police. Most unusually, the lunchtime news on France 2 on Sunday 23 December returned to the sequence, querying the pertinence of the police action. (France 2, 23 December 2018) At long last, online discussion had managed to demonstrate the hypocrisy of “proportional response,” contradicting the institutional media channels, which were considered overly favorable to the government authorities. The effect of this decisive turning point was to provide an independent take on the videos relating to discussions on the social networks, particularly Twitter.

Among the dozens of videos hotly debated in the following months, two other remarkable documentary performances stand out. On the evening of the Labor Day marches on 1 May 2019, which had been overshadowed by an unprecedented level of violence, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner, in a live interview from the La Salpêtrière hospital at 8 p.m. on the BFMTV channel, condemned the rioters in his usual fashion before highlighting what he claimed to be a deliberate attack: “A group of people attacked a hospital. The nurses needed to protect the intensive care unit. Our police forces stepped in immediately to save the unit.” (BFMTV, 1 May 2019)

Confirmed by hospital management and soon magnified by the national media, this alarmist rhetoric was then countered by a video recording published on Facebook on the afternoon of 2 May. (Nejeh Ben Farhat) Showing a few dozen agitated Yellow Vests fleeing an attack by the motorcycle police, the sequence, filmed from the inside by a member of the medical team, proved that the protestors had remained outside the unit, held back by hospital staff. The evidence forced the Minister, in a rare moment of self-criticism, to make a public statement amending his initial comments. (BFMTV, 3 May 2019)

Lastly, in the wake of the demonstrations on 16 November 2019 to mark the first anniversary of the movement, a video provided the first live footage of a peaceful participant being blinded by a handgrenade projection as he was being filmed in deep conversation with a street medic in the Place d’Italie in Paris. (Altra) This recording was the ultimate documented corroboration of a year of appalling repression, providing yet further evidence of acts that went well beyond the bounds of so-called proportional response. On 19 November, in an unprecedented move, the lunchtime news on France 2 and the main news on BFMTV even presented the wounded man as a victim and not as a dangerous hooligan. By giving voice to the protagonists and focusing on emotion the narrative became more human and solicited the viewer’s empathy. Not only did France 2 broadcast the Place d’Italie sequence, it also interviewed the wounded man’s partner, Séverine D., in tears, (France 2, 19 November 2019) while BFMTV recorded a first-hand account from the Yellow Vest’s hospital bed, going as far as to comment: “It is not right that today in France people should be prevented from demonstrating freely or find themselves targeted for no obvious reason by the police authorities.” (BFMTV, 19 November 2019)

Mediation in crisis

On 5 January 2019, the daily newspaper Libération devoted its front page to the “Great Divide” between the media and the Yellow Vests. When it comes to describing the media treatment of the social conflict, however, the three articles comprising the report are singularly lacking in self-criticism. According to the paper’s Editor in Chief Laurent Joffrin “No social movement in recent history has benefited from such massive, open and at times even complaisant coverage.” (Joffrin) Responsibility for the palpable tensions observed since the beginning of the movement is therefore attributed unequivocally to the protestors, who brazenly support the vision proffered by alternative media outlets such as Le Média or Russia Today France rather than that given by the mainstream channels such as BFMTV or France 2.

The blinkered attitude of the media machine and its blindness to its own class bias could not have been better expressed. To Stéphane Delorme, Editor of the Cahiers du cinéma, however, the question of representation is a different ball game: “Not only have the media been the government and police authorities’ most effective watchdogs, they have also acted as indicators of the elite’s disdain […]. TV has once again become a laughing stock compared to the internet. On the one hand we get this terrifying, theoretically reassuring image on the main 8 p.m. news on 15 December, showing protestors in front of the Opera being prevented from marching on the Champs Elysées by mounted police ready to charge. On the other, we are swamped with a wild profusion of videos of police brutality, which ultimately become a genre in their own right.” (Delorme)

Libération’s interpretation, which opposed the media’s supposedly objective take and the militant recourse to communication tools shown on Facebook by the Yellow Vests, was countered by the emergence of a third mediation outlet, in the form of online conversation, its high level of virality creating a platform for a segment of the public critical of the way the main media outlets were portraying the crisis. According to a survey led by ViaVoice in February 2019 on behalf of the Assises internationales du journalisme [International Journalism Conference] in Tours, no fewer than 53% of the French people questioned considered that “most media outlets provided poor coverage of the Yellow Vests movement.” (France Info) There is no denying however that the amount of time involved in finding and discussing information during the weekend Acts of the Yellow Vests represented a colossal workload for the participants, who normally preferred to follow the “official” news provided by professionals. This shift could not have occurred without the general impression of a breakdown, driving internet users towards participatory tools. The evidentiary value accorded to online videos should therefore be seen as the result of an exceptional situation, dialectically combined with an acknowledgment of failure that nourished the search for in-the-field mediation.

The key role of young press agencies and alternative media in the coverage of the crisis proves that the press and the internet should not be presented as two antagonistic forces. From the outset, the selection of viral videos blended amateur recordings and professional reportages—or at least those featuring stylistic and communicational traits compatible with the demands of a more direct news source: brief unedited sequences, freely accessible on optimal discussion platforms, offering unlimited browsing opportunities, catch-ups and comments.

One of the most active press agencies on the internet, Line Press, published videos corresponding to this format directly on Twitter. It was on its thread that one of the most famous sequences was posted, on 5 January 2019, in the course of Act 8 of the movement in Paris: boxer Christophe Dettinger on the Léopold-Sedar-Senghor footbridge forcing four policemen to retreat by punching them with his bare hands. (Line Press) The cameraman’s reactivity as the scene unfolds lends an extraordinary fluidity to the 46-second video, despite masking one aspect of the action — the reason the police are drawing back is because they are facing a determined group of protestors, who have been overshadowed by the tracking shot of the boxer. Yet again, a lengthy online debrief brought in a number of complementary elements to build up an explanation of a gesture that divided the public but was regarded as a heroic epic in the eyes of the Yellow Vests, who saw in it an allegory of David fighting Goliath.

The visibility of the videos finally brought the issue of police violence into the open. The fledgling left-wing news website Le Média, launched in January 2018, provided unrestricted access to David Dufresne’s first interview, led by Aude Lancelin. (Dufresne, Le Média) Thanks to his in-depth itemization of the casualties—which won him the Grand Jury Prize in the March edition of the International Journalism Conference—the independent journalist delivered a moving account of the unprecedented intensity of the police repression. On 11 and again on 14 January 2019, Le Monde and Arrêt sur Images referred for the first time to the obliteration of the violence in the rolling news networks and main television news. (Bougon; Gramaglia/Le Pennec) Libération drew up an initial tally of the consequences of rubber bullet or stinger grenade attacks, with 82 people having sustained serious injuries. (Pezet) Mediapart meanwhile set out on a computer graphics chart David Dufresne’s inventory of hundreds of reported cases. (Dufresne, Mediapart)

Raising awareness continued to be a slow process, however, and the analysis was long in coming. It was only on 16 May that Le Monde, in a video by the Décodeurs, attempted to collate the information provided by the abundant visual online source material, concluding that in most cases the legal limitations and requirements governing the use of firearms had been disregarded by the police authorities. (Carpentier) At no point was the role played by viral videos put into perspective. Only research specialists seemed aware of the democratic risks at stake in applying preventive force, but they rarely intervened, and only then in the form of isolated comments. (Rigouste, 2019; Codaccioni)

The contribution made by videos in establishing the true version of events is most striking by comparison with cases where visual proof is lacking. The death of Zineb Redouane in her own home in Marseille, on 2 December 2018, following the firing of a tear gas grenade, or the severe injuries suffered by Geneviève Legay, a 73 year-old militant violently knocked to the ground in Nice on 23 March 2019 in a police charge, were caught up for months on end in a deliberately nebulous web of contradiction which cast doubt on the accounts given by the victims themselves and their families.

The gradual focus on police brutality in the media rhetoric also reveals the limitations of visual recordings. It was not until 5 November 2019 that a Mediapart investigation into the attack on Maria, a young woman who suffered a serious head injury in Marseille on 8 December 2018, revealed the flagrant bias shown by the Inspection générale de la police nationale (IGPN), the French internal affairs police disciplinary body, not to mention its determination to conceal the facts and gloss over the blame. (Pascariello) Another facet of the deteriorating Rule of Law, the preventive arrests of Yellow Vest members and the dismissal of court cases in order to protect the perpetrators of these violent acts, a scenario that had gone hand in hand with police abuse from the outset, had left no visual traces and had consequently attracted less media interest.

“More than ever, we are living in a society of mediation in which the key players […] are not simply media professionals but anyone whose activity involves producing, disseminating or rendering into social practice the representations and normative knowledge that underlie the definition and implementation of societal orientations” claimed the researcher Paul Beaud in 1985. (Beaud) The Yellow Vests movement has epitomized the way social mediation has taken over from its vacillating professional counterpart and imposed the issue of police violence in the public debate, despite the systematic denials emanating from the highest echelons of the State. For want of any form of institutional guarantee, the two vital parameters that ensured the credibility of this alternative were the narrative construction of the video rushes’ documentary value in a context of confrontation, and the public selection of high-virality conversational content on social media.

In line with the theory of participatory mediation, this shift provides valuable insight in terms of its practical implementation. Far from confirming an essentialist opposition between the press and social networks, the range of chosen documents, produced by both amateurs and professionals, and seen from the point of view of both victims and witnesses, including a police officer, demonstrates the effectiveness of the copwatching frame of reference, in other words the condemnation of visible acts subjected to public exposure. While the distinguishing aspect of the most commented videos lies in the unity and explicitness of an often spectacular event, they also share a potential for allowing diametrically opposed interpretations. Quite apart from their narrative qualities, the videos of Mantes-la-Jolie or the boxer on the footbridge can stir up contradictory visions of society. The powerful credibility of the unedited footage, endorsed by participatory selection, allows the videos to pull the strings of public debate and offer a shared discussion space as a launchpad for forging opinions, against a backdrop of intense conflict.

On the level of historical narrative, the visibility of police brutality makes a seminal contribution in raising awareness of the authoritarian excesses of regimes faced with the crisis of neoliberal capitalism. (Godin) Although according to law and order specialists, police violence has been rampant in deprived areas for many years, up to now it has been scarcely visible. (Rigouste, 2012) The exceptional length of the conflict, not to mention the refusal by the authorities to condemn these acts, however, has now thrust it into the limelight. The accumulation of eye-witness accounts and the sheer number of the injured (approximately 2,448 Yellow Vests and passers-by, in several dozen cases involving the loss of an eye, after twelve months of conflict, according to the figures of the Ministry of the Interior) now make it impossible to attribute them to accidents or police blunders – not least because the methods involved appear to have been ratified as a doctrine in its own right. (Halissat)

Translated from French by Caroline Taylor-Bouché.


  1. After the protests of 17 December 2018, which drew 280 000 participants, by the end of that year the mobilization of the Yellow Vests had plummeted to 30.000, according to figures released by the French Ministry of the Interior (Jeanpierre). []
  2. The cinematic term “rushes” applies here to the unedited footage of the video sequences. []
  3. Comments on Twitter, 6 December 2018 []

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