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Play-ing rough: Clashes mar French theatre show as youths protest ‘unreasonable’ police presence

An annual street theatre in the Aurillac commune in South-Central France saw spectators clash with the police after dozens of festivalgoers complained about the over-the-top security measures, which they likened to being ‘caged.’

The violence erupted on Friday afternoon when a group of people refused to be searched by the police as they entered a festival venue in the center of town.

Within the space of just one hour, the tension had escalated to the point where the festivalgoers were setting up barricades and throwing rocks at the officers, who in turn used tear gas to disperse the crowds.

The protesters set trash bins on fire, overturned street signs and broke windows, with authorities claiming that the crowd was being pushed forward and instigated by some 20-30 hooded vandals.

Between 100 and 300 people took part in clashes, while three protesters were detained. Many of the festival’s activities had to be cancelled due to the violence.

The disturbances ceased late into the night, after the police and several politicians addressed the crowds.

The 31st International Festival of Street Theatre in Aurillac, in the French prefecture of Cantal, kicked off on Wednesday, August 17. Under the State of Emergency declared in France following a series of terrorist attacks, the Aurillac authorities mulled cancelling the event, but eventually decided to allow it to go ahead.

However, they imposed exceptional security measures, calling in 138 additional gendarmes, as well as setting up police barriers, metals detectors and bollards throughout the town. Anyone who wanted access to the security perimeter in the town center had to be searched.

"These measures are intended to protect festival goers and artists [...] they are not repressive measures," Jean Francois Beauvois, the Chief of Staff of the prefecture of Cantal said, as cited by France Bleu.

According to La Montagne, the first incident took place on Wednesday when the police and some people attending the festival had an argument during a search. However by Friday, the problems had escalated.

Activists distributed leaflets denouncing the unprecedented police presence and other security measures, which they compared to being “caged.”

Following the trouble on Friday, Beauvois said the rioters were “not festivalgoers, but thugs,” while other officials responded with similar remarks.

“These are brainless thugs who are trying to fight with those who are trying to protect the artists, the festival, the local population, and ensure there is no threat of attacks,” the prefect Richard Vignon said, adding that authorities tried to do everything in their power to make sure the festival takes place and maintain public safety.

The local mayor, Pierre Mathonier, also expressed disappointment that “some festival goers believed the anti-terror measures were designed to strip them of their freedom.”

It is yet to be decided whether the instigators of the clashes will be charged. The festival ends on Saturday, while the town’s authorities have not yet announced whether it will be held again next year.