Paris Protests Disrupt Torch Relay
Tuesday, April 8, 2008
PARIS, April 7 -- Thousands of rowdy demonstrators forced cancellation of the last leg of the Olympic torch ceremony in Paris on Monday with repeated attacks on the procession, escalating international protests over China's human rights record ahead of the 2008 Games in Beijing this summer.
About 3,000 French police officers, some of them spraying Mace, sought to guard the 17-mile parade route but were often unable to stop demonstrators, many of them waving Tibetan flags, from surging onto the streets as torch carriers passed. At least three times, the torch was extinguished and the athletes retreated for protection into buses.
Protesters often used the most picturesque landmarks in Paris -- the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe and Champs-Elysees, the Louvre Museum and Notre Dame Cathedral -- as backdrops for screaming face-offs with police and large groups of flag-waving pro-China supporters.
The torch ceremony is a rich Olympic tradition, and the growing movement against it has left some Olympic officials considering whether to cut back the 58-day pageant, during which the Olympic flame is to travel 85,000 miles through 21 countries.
"The International Olympic Committee may have a bigger problem when the torch relay continues, if we get more of these demonstrations," Tove Paule, the head of Norway's Olympic Committee, told public broadcaster NRK after a meeting with Olympic officials in Beijing. "One will have to look at whether the plans need to be changed."
In recent weeks, pressure has been mounting on the International Olympic Committee to respond to complaints from activists and politicians that China's lack of political freedom is incompatible with the values enshrined in the Olympic Charter. Officials have said that they are concerned about Tibet but that the IOC is not a political organization and cannot strong-arm the host government.
On Monday, amid reports of the developing chaos in Paris, IOC President Jacques Rogge mentioned Tibet by name again. "I'm very concerned with the international situation and what's happening in Tibet," he said at a ceremony in Beijing. "The torch relay has been targeted. The International Olympic Committee has expressed its serious concern and calls for a rapid, peaceful resolution in Tibet."
The Chinese People's Liberation Army entered Tibet in 1950. The Dalai Lama, leader of Tibetan Buddhism, fled to India nine years later amid an uprising. He is based in India today, along with a Tibetan government-in-exile. A number of international rights groups and celebrities have championed the cause of Tibet independence for years; Chinese authorities' suppression of demonstrations in Tibet and the upsurge in protests abroad have drawn new international attention.
On Wednesday, the torch is scheduled to be carried on a six-mile procession through San Francisco, its only U.S. stop. Organizers are bracing for thousands of pro-Tibet demonstrators, and police said they would station hundreds of extra officers on the city's streets. Protesters climbed cables on the Golden Gate Bridge on Monday and unfurled a giant banner reading "One World, One Dream, Free Tibet '08."
In Paris, the assaults began almost simultaneously with the first relay runner's departure from the starting point, the Eiffel Tower. As Chinese dancers performed with colorful, gyrating dragons under France's most famous landmark, Green Party activist Sylvain Garel lunged for the passing torchbearer, shouting "Freedom for the Chinese!"
As they made their way along the streets of Paris, athletes were surrounded by Chinese security teams as well as French police on in-line skates. Police on horseback, bicycles and motorcycles filled the streets of the route. Black-suited divers patrolled the Seine River, and helicopters monitored the route overhead.
But barely 30 minutes from the Eiffel Tower, protesters closed in, forcing the torchbearer to extinguish the flame and seek refuge inside a bus for several minutes.