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Multiple false claims about the deployment of soldiers during French Yellow Vests protests

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CORRECTIV Faktencheck, Germany

10 April 2019, Updated: 15 April 2019

Multiple false claims about the deployment of soldiers during French Yellow Vests protests

An article circulating in Germany claims that Emmanuel Macron had “summoned” the European military police force, Eurogendfor, in connection with a Yellow Vest demonstration and had authorised soldiers “to open fire on Yellow Vests”. This is not true.

“SCANDAL: Media remain silent – Macron gives permission to open fire on Yellow Vests” – this was the headline of an article on the Watergate.tv website, dated 26 March. The article claims, among other things, that French President Emmanuel Macron had “summoned anti-terror units of the French military and Eurogendfor, the EU grandees’ private European army” for the Yellow Vests’ “19th Saturday protest” on 23 March. At the time of writing, the article has been shared more than 1379 times on Facebook.

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The Watergate.tv headline. Screenshot: CORRECTIV

Watergate.tv cites as its source an article in the Daily Mail. This article, dated 22 March, reports that “French soldiers” would be deployed at the Yellow Vest protest on 23 March for the first time. It has been shared more than 15,600 times.

In the run-up to the EU elections, CORRECTIV is working with 18 other fact-checking media organisations as part of the FactCheckEU project. This fact-check has been carried out in association with CheckNews, the fact-checking project of the French newspaper Libération. With the support of our French colleagues, CORRECTIV has checked four key claims from the Watergate.tv article:

1. No, the soldiers assigned to “Opération Sentinelle” are not “elite troops” – and Eurogendfor has never been deployed in France

Are the “Sentinelles” elite troops? Watergate.tv claims that they are but, as CheckNews CORRECTIV have reported, this is not the case. On the contrary: according to CheckNews, they mostly consist of young soldiers with little experience. Spiegel Online also referred misleadingly to “elite troops” in the headline of an article dated 20 March.

A report by the French public broadcaster franceinfo on 21 March explained the background to “Opération Sentinelle”: it was set up in January 2015 after the terror attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo. There are currently 7000 Sentinelle troops mobilised, of which, according to franceinfo.fr, half are stationed in Paris. Their role is to guard – or patrol in the vicinity of – places of worship, schools and tourist sites such as the Eiffel Tower on Saturdays. They are subject to the same conditions as the internal security forces, i.e. the police, and have the same powers.

It is true that the Sentinelles were deployed at a Yellow Vest protest on 23 March for the first time. This was announced by French government spokesperson Benjamin Griveaux on 20 March, following a meeting of the Cabinet in Paris.

According to its official website, the military police force Eurogendfor has never been deployed in France, not even on 23 March, as suggested by Watergate.tv. Again according to its website, it has so far been involved in five missions, three of which ­– in Afghanistan, Mali and the Central African Republic – are still ongoing.

In January CheckNews debunked a claim that a Eurogendfor armoured vehicle had been spotted in Paris. In reality, as reported by CheckNews in another article, the vehicle had previously been used for European training missions, which was why it was carrying an EU sticker.

2. There is no evidence that Macron gave permission for anyone to “open fire on Yellow Vests”

Contrary to the impression given by the Watergate.tv headline, Macron himself has never said anything about permission to fire on Yellow Vests, and the Daily Mail article cited by Watergate.tv does not claim that he has. The French Ministry of the Interior told franceinfo.fr that the Sentinelle troops had been “mobilised in order to secure fixed, static points” and would therefore “not be with the police on the front line”.

So far, the only person to have spoken publicly about the possibility of weapons being used in this deployment is the Military Governor of Paris, Bruno Le Ray. In an interview for franceinfo.fr he said, “Our orders are sufficiently clear that we don’t need to have any worries. The soldiers’ rules of engagement are very precisely defined.” He went on to say, “They will have various means at their disposal to respond to threats of any kind, up to and including the use of firearms.” Contrary to what the Ministry of the Interior had said, Le Ray further told francinfo.fr that the Sentinelles would also be able to patrol.

However, to suggest that the French President had personally given permission to open fire on Yellow Vests is an extremely loose interpretation of Le Ray’s comments.

3. Yes, it is true that the Paris police used a chemical substance for the first time on 15 March; the substance in question was tear gas.

The article on Watergate.tv, drawing on the Daily Mail, claims that “for the first time, police used ‘small quantities’ of a chemical weapon near the Arc de Triomphe, as a ‘last resort’”. Watergate.tv continues, “An independent news agency published a video online showing the chemical substance being released from armoured vehicles.”

This is mostly true, as confirmed by a CheckNews fact-check on 17 March, according to which police really did release tear gas from an armoured vehicle on 15 March for the first time, in order to “disperse a violent crowd in the vicinity of the Arc de Triomphe”.

4. German media HAVE reported on the “events in our neighbouring country”

The final paragraph of the Watergate.tv article implies that German media have not reported on the deployment of the Sentinelles; its headline claims that “Media remain silent”.

This is not true. Examples include Zeit Online and Spiegel Online, both of which reported on the protests and the Sentinelle deployment, on 23 and 20 March, respectively.

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