France reservoir clashes leave protester 'fighting for life' with head trauma

More than 20 police were injured in violent scenes at the organised rally

Protesters confront the gendarmerie during a demonstration at a water reservoir in Sainte-Soline. Reuters
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A French protester is fighting for his life in hospital after suffering head injuries at an organised demonstration in south-west France over a disputed reservoir.

Prosecutor Julien Wattebled said the 30-year-old is one of three protesters requiring hospital treatment following Saturday's rally at Sainte-Soline.

The other two badly injured demonstrators were a 19-year-old woman with a facial trauma and a 27-year-old man with a broken foot.

A special inquiry had been opened “to determine the exact nature” of the injuries of the three protesters and “the circumstances in which” they received them, he said.

According to the latest figures from the prosecutor's office on Sunday, seven protesters were injured. However, the organisers of the gathering claim about 200 were hurt.

Twenty-nine policemen also sustained injuries, two of them badly enough that they had to be admitted to hospital, the prosecutor's office said.

The clashes are the latest flashpoint in nationwide protests that have for days rocked France and led to Britain's King Charles III and Queen Consort Camilla being forced to cancel their planned visit.

Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets in daily demonstrations to voice their disapproval of President Emmanuel Macron’s unpopular pensions reform.

Gendarmerie vehicles burn as protesters attend a demonstration in Sainte-Soline. Reuters

Several thousand activists on Saturday descended on Sainte-Soline, 400km south-west of Paris, to oppose the construction of giant water storage facilities. They argue that the “basins” to irrigate crops will distort access to water amid drought conditions. Organisers of the gathering said 30,000 attended.

Supporters of the cause travelled from Italy, Belgium, Spain, Switzerland, and Germany, while some represented landless people from Mali, Colombia, Chile, as well as Native Americans, according to Le Monde.

“While the country is rising up to defend pensions, we will simultaneously stand up to defend water,” the organisers said.

The authorities had mobilised more than 3,000 police officers and paramilitary gendarmes to guard the site.

In a tweet supporting the work of the emergency services there, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne denounced “the intolerable wave of violence” at Sainte-Soline.

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin also condemned the violence, blaming elements from the “ultra-left and the extreme left”.

Eleven people were detained after police seized weapons including petanque balls and meat knives, as well as explosives.

While not directly related to the anti-pensions reform campaign, the clashes over the water reservoir construction have added to tensions in an increasingly challenging situation for the government.

What began as a movement against pension reform has quickly spiralled into the biggest domestic crisis of President Macron's second term.

Police and protesters have clashed daily in Paris and other cities over the past week, in scenes reminiscent of the “yellow vest” protests in the winter of 2019-2020.

Protesters threw various projectiles, including improvised explosives, while police responded with tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets.

The government is bracing for another difficult day on Tuesday when unions are due to hold another round of strikes and protests. That would have been the second full day of King Charles's visit.

France's security forces last week faced criticism for their heavy-handed tactics in dealing with the protests.

On Friday, the Council of Europe warned that sporadic violence in protests “cannot justify excessive use of force”.

Updated: March 26, 2023, 3:06 PM

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