PARIS — A video of French students silently kneeling in rows, their hands behind their heads or secured behind their backs with zip ties as riot police circle them, has ignited outrage after being posted on social media by a watchdog group.
The students in the video, taken on Thursday, were part of a protest in the western Paris suburb of Mantes-la-Jolie against proposed overhauls to national exams.
Demonstrations against the exam proposals have slowly gained steam around the country, at the same time as France has been shaken by the “Yellow Vest” protests, which started as opposition to a planned increase in France’s fuel tax and have.
On Friday, Jacques Toubon, France’s ombudsman for human rights, said he had opened an investigation into the treatment of the students. Local officials defended their actions, saying they were trying to prevent violence like that sparked by the Yellow Vest protests, in which four people have died and 700 been wounded.
The roundup of the students in this manner was called “simply intolerable” by Cécile Duflot, a former housing minister and now the director general of Oxfam in France, and condemned by other human rights advocates and politicians.
The initial footage of the incident, shared on Twitter by the Violences Policières group, had more than two million views less than a day after it was posted.
Some 150 students were collectively arrested Thursday after protests at two high schools in the area, according to police officials speaking to the French newspaper Le Monde.
Tensions had been brewing for days at Saint-Exupéry and Jean-Rostand high schools. On Tuesday, garbage cans were set on fire and rocks thrown at the police, according to Le Monde. The police responded with tear gas.
Politicians across the political spectrum criticized the police.
The left-wing politician and former presidential candidate Benoit Hamon called the scene “chilling,” while Eric Coquerel, a far-left member of Parliament, called the “violence unacceptable and humiliating.”
Florian Philippot, a far-right politician, said: “Re-establish order, yes. Those useless and shocking methods, no. Not in France.”
Jean-Michel Blanquer, the education minister, said that while the images were shocking it was important to understand the environment in which the arrests took place.
“When I saw these images myself, I was obviously shocked,” he told France Inter radio. “We must find out what happened before, the context in which this unfolded.”
Some officials defended the police, pointing to the mounting tensions between the students and the police over the past few days.
A local prosecutor, Vincent Descloud, told Le Monde that security forces “had to opt for a law enforcement solution.”
On Friday, dozens of students and teachers showed their support for those arrested, reproducing their kneeling pose in Paris and in several other cities.
A large group gathered in Place de la République in Paris despite rainy weather, in solidarity with the students.