PARIS: A former boxer who became a symbol of France’s “yellow vest” protests after being filmed punching police officers during a demonstration in Paris goes on trial on Wednesday on charges that carry up to seven years in jail.
Christophe Dettinger, 37, an ex national light-heavyweight champion, was caught on camera on Jan.5 throwing a flurry of punches at two officers during clashes on a footbridge over the river Seine near parliament.
The footage, which was played repeatedly on TV and social media, also showed the 1.9-metre (6.3-foot) tall Dettinger kicking one of the officers on the ground.
The scene caused widespread outrage, with the government describing it as a prime example of the violence that has characterised the yellow vest demonstrations since they began in November.
But some of the protesters have hailed Dettinger as a hero for taking on the police.
The yellow vest movement — so-named after the luminous safety vests worn by the activists — started over fuel tax hikes and quickly grew into a sustained campaign against the economic policies and leadership style of President Emmanuel Macron.
An angry ‘ordinary citizen’
The number of people taking part in the weekly protests has fallen significantly since the start of the year, but the heat has still not left the rebellion, with demonstrations regularly ending in clashes and destruction of property.
Six people were arrested on Tuesday morning on suspicion of having used a forklift truck to ram open the doors leading to the office of government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux, on the same day as Dettinger’s attack on the police.
The Paris prosecutor’s office said a father and son were among those held over the onslaught, which led to Griveaux being hurriedly evacuated from the building.
Since the start of the protests, 1,796 people have been sentenced in court, notably for destruction of public property and violence against police.
Another 1,422 are still awaiting trial, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe told parliament on Tuesday.
Dettinger, nicknamed “The Gypsy From Massy” during his days in the ring in reference to the town south of Paris where he grew up, turned himself in two days after the incident and has been in custody ever since.
In a video posted a day later on YouTube, he described himself as an “ordinary citizen” acting out of anger with what he called the repressive tactics of the police, who have been criticised for their liberal use of teargas, rubber bullets and stun grenades.
“I was tear-gassed, with my friend and my wife, and at a certain point the anger just rose up inside me,” he said.
At his first court appearance on Jan.9 the married father-of-three apologised for his outburst.
His case has elicited widespread sympathy among the yellow vests and their supporters, with an online fundraising drive bringing in more than 117,000 euros ($134,000) towards his legal costs.
In another sign of support, street artists painted two giant black-and-white portraits of the boxer, one showing him punching the policemen, on a wall in northern Paris.
On Friday, a leading figure of the yellow vest movement, 33-year-old truck driver Eric Drouet, will also be tried on charges of illegally organising a demonstration in Paris.
He faces up to six months in prison if convicted.
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