France is finally joining the rest of Europe by withdrawing explosives from its arsenal of crowd control tools. The announced retirement of the protester-maiming GLI-F4 grenade however may be due to stocks running out.
The GLI-F4 is a controversial device that the French police and gendarmes consider a weapon of last resort before using live bullets. The 190-gram projectile, which can be thrown by hand or fired from a launcher, contains about 30 grams of the high explosive TNT. When it explodes, it produces a powerful blast, a deafening bang and a cloud of the tear gas CS.
The blast part is what poses most danger, because it can launch shrapnel and injure a person standing too close. Several protesters lost toes, fingers and hands to these grenades while others suffered bone fractures, burns and other serious traumas.
The police rules are quite strict about how the GLI-F4 should be deployed: a supervisor has to assess the situation before ordering to fire, and the officer launching the grenade has to make sure it lands at a safe distance from the targeted people. In practice, in chaotic environment of street protest rules are bent and people get hurt.
So it’s welcome news from Interior Minister Christophe Castaner, who announced on Sunday that the controversial weapon is finally getting retired. Except the ‘ban’ is probably more symbolic. The grenade retirement has been years in the making. The producer, Alsetex, stopped making them in 2014.
In May 2018 the French police announced the GLI-F4 was not on their procurement list for restocking grenades. They said at the time they will use up the remaining devices and switch to its intended replacement, the TNT-free GM2L. After Castaner’s announcement the newspaper Liberation asked the cabinet how many GLI-F4s remain in police stock, but did not get an answer. A police union secretary general called the minister’s announcement a PR stunt ahead of municipal election.
A group of lawyers tried to have the GLI-F4 actually banned, but their motion was rejected by the Council of State in July 2019.
Ironically, the GLI-F4 was touted as a safer replacement for another Alsetex-made police explosive device, the OF-F1 grenade, which was suspended after one of them killed environment activist Rémi Fraisse during the October 2014 clashes at Sivens Dam.
Its replacement, the GM2L, has been rolled out since early 2018. Critics of French police tactics in dealing with protesters say the new grenade may still be too dangerous. But at least the French government will have less red tape to deal with — since it uses a pyrotechnic compound instead of high explosives, it’s not considered a weapon of war and has less restrictions on packaging, transportation and storage.
However, the absence of GLI-F4 in French streets does not mean participating in protests there becomes a safe endeavor. Other police tools, like the golf ball-sized LBD 40 foam projectiles, have caused serious body harm to people.