French CRS riot police forcibly remove French youth and environmental activists as they block a bridge during a demonstration to urge world leaders to act against climate change, in Paris, France, June 28, 2019.

© 2019 Reuters/Charles Platiau

Last weekend, France recorded an all-time heat record of 45.9 degrees Celsius. With rising temperatures globally, heatwaves are becoming more intense and frequent and their impacts can be devastating. But when a group called Extinction Rebellion organized a protest on a Paris bridge on June 28 demanding France act more swiftly to reduce carbon emissions, they faced a harsh police response.

Video footage from the protest shows Paris riot police using teargas from very close range against a couple dozen activists peacefully staging a sit-in.

Human Rights Watch has documented cases of disproportionate use of force by French police including unnecessary use of teargas against migrant children in Calais in 2017, and during some “yellow vest” and student protests last year. As climate activists ring alarm bells, they are facing government repression in many parts of the world. Some climate activists were prevented from participating in last year’s climate talks in Poland.

But the French police response comes at a time when much of the government seems to agree that acting on climate change is a priority.

Last week, the French High Council for the Climate, a government-mandated panel, published a report finding that France is not on track to meet its goals under the Paris Agreement. The French Parliament has recognized the global threat by declaring a climate emergency. In the lead up to the G20 Summit in Japan, France’s President Emmanuel Macron announced he would treat climate change as a red-line issue. In a recent speech, he even called on student climate activists to continue holding their leaders to account: “I need you to make our lives impossible…because the more you do that, the more likely we are to act.”

The French minister of the interior, Christophe Castaner, has asked for a written account from Parisian police authorities about Friday’s response. On Monday, the public prosecutor also opened an investigation to assess whether the police response was proportionate.

The government should also reflect more broadly on the implications of its actions toward climate activists. At a time when environmental defenders are under threat globally, the French government should listen to those raising climate concerns, not repress them.