The controversial Sivens dam project in south-west France has been temporarily suspended after the death of 21-year-old activist Remi Fraisse while protesting at the site on October 25.
An autopsy found that Fraisse had likely died from a police stun grenade that hit him in the back.
Protests erupted across France in the immediate aftermath of the incident.
The initial outburst was one of anger: hundreds of protesters gathered in major cities across France during the week after Fraisse’s death. This led to confrontations with police, who fired rubber bullets and tear gas. Protesters responding by throwing stones and other projectiles. Several dozen protesters were arrested.
On November 2, several thousand supporters gathered at the Sivens protest site to honour the fallen activist. On the same day, 700 people gathered for a peaceful sit-in at the Champ de Mars in Paris while 300 people staged an “unauthorised” demonstration in Place de Stalingrad.
Thierry Carcenac, the Socialist Party mayor of the Tarn region, where the dam is being built, was quick to blame the victim, saying: “To die for ideas, that’s something, but it is nonetheless stupid and foolish.”
Socialist Party President Francois Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls have tried to calm the situation. They questioned the truth of claims about police violence and diverted fire towards the protesters and the Green Party.
Interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve said: “It is not a matter of a mistake [by the police].”
The Greens and the Left Front have publicly condemned the government’s handling of the issue and demanded the dam stop being built. The Left Party, part of the Left Front, has called on Cazeneuve to step down.
Far from an isolated incident, the police attack on Fraisse, who was protesting peacefully, is part of a broader culture of violence by French police.
On October 21, in the French city of Blois, another young man lost an eye from a rubber bullet fired by police.
Protesters at the proposed dam site in Tarn say they have faced “almost daily police violence” since they began their resistance last year.
Until now, Carcenac has ignored criticisms of the dam project, claiming that the publicly-funded project is in the “general interest”.
However, protesters say the Sivens dam project is putting profit for a few ahead of important biodiversity and natural habitat.
The TESTET zone, where the dam is to be built, is the last remaining humid forest in the Tescou region. It is home to 94 endangered animal species.
The protesters say the dam-building process has been fundamentally anti-democratic, involving no consultation of environmental groups.
In a clear conflict of interest, the contract was given to the private company ― CACG ― that carried out the study to ascertain the need for the project.
Protesters say claims about the need for the project are dubious: the dam will hold three times as much water as the region needs.
The project will hand out 8.4 million euros to CACG, funds that could be spent on developing infrastructure for more ecologically sound agricultural practices.
Environment minister Segolene Royal said on November 4 that a compromise would be found between the protesters and CACG ― but that the project will go ahead.
However, after the death of Fraisse, it seems unlikely the protesters will back down.
Fraisse’s death marks the first time someone has been killed by police at a protest on mainland France since 1986. It is a further blow to the credibility of the Hollande government.
Cecile Duflot of the Greens said the incident forms an “indelible stain” on the government’s record.
Already suffering from historically low opinion polls and a series of public detractors from within his own party, Hollande has also recently been forced by the European Union to amend his administration's budget to include further spending cuts of 3.6 billion euros.
The latest report from the European Commission released on November 4 slashed its projections for growth for the French economy next year from 1.5% to 0.7%, continuing its prolonged stagnation.