It was a warm afternoon in March. David Breidenstein says he looked on as some of the more radical yellow vest protesters set fire to Le Fouquet’s, not just a restaurant but a symbol of wealth and power in France.
As the flames spread licking at the famous red awning, Breidenstein quickly turned on his feet hoping to distance himself from the blaze, fearful of getting caught up in the violence he says he wasn’t fueling.
A few seconds later he stopped, lit a cigarette, and as he looked back towards the riot police he felt the full force of a golf-ball-size rubber bullet strike his left eye.
“It felt like a lump of concrete. I fell to the ground and thought ‘I’ve lost my eye, it’s gone.’”
Violent clashes across France
Breidenstein is one of at least 24 people who have lost an eye since the “gilets jaunes,” or Yellow Vest, protests began in November 2018, according to Desarmons-Les, a support group for those maimed on the streets of French cities.
What began as a campaign against a gas tax hike, morphed into a broader rally against President Emmanuel Macron’s government. Scenes of violent clashes erupted across France. Protesters hurled petrol bombs and bricks while the riot police used water cannons, stun grenades and tear gas as they attempted to contain the anger.
In March France’s interior ministry put the number of Yellow Vests injured at 2,200 and put the number of police officers hurt in the clashes at 1,500. The ministry would not give CNN the number of people who sustained eye injuries.
Breidenstein says it took him two months to be able to open his window shutters once more. He felt better in the dark.
The father of two says one of his great regrets is that his eye injury has kept him from protesting. He hasn’t taken to the streets since March 16.
But on Sunday, Breidenstein was planning to make the two-hour journey to Paris from his home in Troyes, in the northeast of France, to return to the place where he lost his eye – the Champs-Elysees, the same avenue where Le Fouquet just reopened its doors for the first time since the fire that gutted it.
He was going to join the Yellow Vests as they protested for the 35th week in a row.
The revolt has dwindled over the past several months with less than 100 protesters showing up in the capital each Saturday.
However, the Yellow Vests hoped once again to make their voices heard on Bastille Day – a national holiday commemorating the storming of the Bastille prison in 1789 at the start of the French Revolution.
‘They finally got me’
Jerome Rodrigues, a high-profile and now permanently scarred member of the Yellow Vest movement, was also taking part in Sunday’s demonstration.
Rodrigues was live-streaming a rally in January at the Place de la Bastille when he sustained his injury. Protesters were playing cat and mouse with police while bricks and tear gas flew through the air. A dispersal grenade landed next to his left foot and a rubber bullet struck his right eye.
The 39-year-old construction worker was knocked sideways. “I thought ‘S***! They got me, they finally got me!”
After receiving 17 stitches to his eyeball and four stitches to his eyelid Rodrigues says that basic daily activities have become difficult.
“I have to hold both the glass and the bottle when I’m pouring myself some water,” he laments.
“I’m constantly craning my neck to see what’s happening on the right and sometimes I get startled by people who magically appear at my side. This is my life now.”
Another injured protester is Olivier Fostier, who has taken to wearing dark glasses in a bid to hide the right eye he lost in a cloud of tear gas, as shrapnel tore into his socket.
The former military man and police officer says the riot police used excessive force that day. He says he was a regular demonstrator, not a “casseur,” or hooligan, not a “black bloc,” a masked and hooded anarchist.
Fostier says the protest had all but come to an end when tear gas and stun grenades were launched.
Both the United Nations and the European Parliament have condemned the French police for the apparent use of excessive force during the yellow vest rallies.
And the IGPN – the body that investigates police abuses – has launched 220 investigations into the conduct of French police officers.
France’s interior minister Christophe Castaner has repeatedly defended the way in which the riot police have behaved at rallies but in June he ordered a review of police methods used to control protesters.
CNN put in repeated calls and emails to the interior ministry, which speaks for the police department, asking for a response to the accusations of police abuses. The ministry referred CNN back to previous comments made by Castaner.
‘Nothing is at it was’
Fostier says he shies away from social gatherings and prefers going outside when it’s dark.
“People stare at you. They see you either as a victim or as a trouble-maker.”
The father of three says it’s not just a psychological trauma but it’s an aesthetic one too.
“It’s put a strain on my relationship with my wife. Until now, my son had never seen me cry before. Nothing is at it was.”
Gwendal Leroy says he only realized something terrible had happened when he felt a rush of hot blood coming from his left eye.
“Have I lost my eye? Have I lost my eye?” He anxiously yelled at medics and friends who came to his aid.
It took him several weeks to accept his new handicap from the rubber bullet that hit him. Now he says he feels “la haine,” or hatred, towards the government.
“They’ve branded me for life!” the 27-year-old says forcefully.
“I don’t regret being a yellow vest but I’m ashamed at being marked by the police in this way. People recognize me now and make assumptions about me.”
Leroy is unemployed and believes his eye injury will be used against him when applying for jobs.
“It’s not about which job I can get, it’s about who will want me. There are bosses who are anti-yellow vest, who do you think they’ll pick? Me? Or the other guy?”
All four men have filed legal action against the government claiming there was a disproportionate use of force by the police. The government is yet to respond.