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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 16 January 2019

France's yellow vest boxer sparks controversy and praise after bashing police

He has been filmed pummelling one gendarme with his fists and kicking another as he lay on the ground.

Christophe Dettinger, a former French boxing champion captured on video attacking police officers has become an unlikely hero of the French "gilets jaunes" protests as President Emmanuel Macron prepares tough new responses to growing violence at demonstrations.

Almost 8,000 donors pledged more than 116,000 euros (Dh491,000) to Mr Dettinger before indignant reaction from police unions and politicians led the crowdfunding company Leetchi to suspend the appeal.

Mr Dettinger, 37, handed himself to police this week and faces prosecution after being filmed pummelling one gendarme with his fists and kicking another as he lay on the ground.

Despite his self-confessed violence during disturbances in Paris last Saturday, he describes himself as an ordinary citizen, neither a right-wing nor left-wing extremist. He says he is proud of his country but worried for his children’s future.

The former boxer, who won 18 of his 22 professional bouts and became French cruiserweight champion in 2007, attempted to justify his actions in a video circulated by relatives and since viewed by millions.

He admitted he “acted badly” after witnessing brutality against demonstrators.

Mr Dettinger claimed he, his wife and a friend were tear-gassed and became angry when he saw police using similar tactics against pensioners and “hurting people with flash balls (rubber bullets)”. Countless messages of support and even admiration, some hailing him as the protest movement’s own “Rambo”, have been posted on social media.

But one of the officers he injured said he felt as if the boxer intended “to cause real harm, even to kill if he could”.

Police unions were outraged by the appeal fund. Benoit Barret, deputy leader of the Police Alliance Nationale, told the French television station BFMTV the fund was "a bonus for beating up a cop”, adding to the humiliation of the two injured officers.

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Read more:

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Guillaume Kasbarian, a member of Mr Macron’s parliamentary majority, tweeted that the crowdfunding was a “moral wreck”, shameful at a time when associations struggle to raise money for “more exemplary and humanistic” projects.

Mr Macron's prime minister Edouard Philippe has now announced a series of measures to counter the violence.

He said the government would support a new law to punish the organisers of unauthorised protests, banning known troublemakers from taking part and arresting demonstrators who turn up wearing masks to conceal their identities.

A video grab made on January 7, 2019 shows former boxer Christophe Dettinger broacasting a message of apology for punching police officers.  AFP 
A video grab made on January 7, 2019 shows former boxer Christophe Dettinger broacasting a message of apology for punching police officers.  AFP 

Both developments – coinciding with separate concerns over a police officer’s unpunished ill-treatment of a protester in the southern port of Toulon – highlight the increasing ugliness of unrest that began over fuel prices but have widened to a revolt against Mr Macron’s economic policies. Ten people have died in incidents at or near roadblocks set up by protesters.

Nicolas Tenzer, a political commentator, essayist and former top civil servant, said on French TV that the country faced an “insurrectionist movement driven by the extreme right and left”, which has adopted violence as a natural element of its combat.

Journalists have been repeatedly attacked while covering protests but Sophia Chikirou, a former campaign director for the far-left Jean-Luc Melenchon’s La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) party, said after earlier disturbances that she feels no sympathy for them.

The “gilets jaunes”, named because they wear the luminous yellow vests French motorists are legally obliged to carry, are supported by far-right and far-left parties but have also won approval in opinion polls.

Despite the eruption of trouble at each of eight Paris weekend protests so far, and at numerous other flashpoints around the country, polls suggest just over half the population believes the campaign should continue.

Leaders of Italy's ruling coalition – the far-right Matteo Salvini and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement’s Luigi Di Maio – have expressed solidarity, though this can also be seen in the context of soured relations between Rome and the Elysee Palace.

Mr Macron’s own standing in the polls has slumped since he won the presidency convincingly against the far-right leader Marine Le Pen in May 2017.

Recent surveys suggest 75 per cent of the public oppose his government’s policies and 60 per cent were unimpressed by his New Year message, in which he said he understood popular anger but remained committed to his reform programme.

Another huge security operation, involving 80,000 personnel, is planned for Saturday when the 10th weekly protests are due to be staged around France.

The government is also working on ways to put the onus on “the troublemakers, and not taxpayers” to pay for damage to businesses and properties. “Those who question our institutions will not have the last word,” said Mr Philippe in a televised announcement of his proposals for combatting violence.

Updated: January 8, 2019 09:51 PM

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