By John Ward Anderson and Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
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.
Two hours later, as the wheelchair-using table tennis player Emeric Martin rolled by the Trocadero plaza holding the unlighted torch aloft, he and two colleagues were pelted with plastic juice bottles, fruits and other projectiles by pro-Tibet demonstrators.
"Normally, this is supposed to be a celebration -- the torch is a symbol of peace," Martin said just after one of his companions was hit in the face with an object and they retreated to a bus. "This was not very pleasant."
Near the Louvre Museum, a torchbearer was forced inside the bus again when a protester approached with a fire extinguisher. Chinese officials ordered the torch into the bus and demanded that it bypass Paris's City Hall after local officials hung a banner outside declaring: "Paris defends human rights everywhere in the world."
Later, with the relay dragging hours behind schedule because of the confrontations, Olympic organizers in Paris and at the Chinese Embassy halted the procession 3 1/2 miles from its end and carried the torch inside a bus for the remainder of the route.
"Even with the unbelievable number of police on the route, the organizers didn't manage to protect the flame," said Benoit Hervieu, a spokesman for the press freedom advocacy group Reporters Without Borders, which managed to drape its banners depicting the Olympic rings as handcuffs on the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame Cathedral. "It will have a disastrous effect on China and the Olympic Committee. Today was clearly a nightmare for them."
"This event shows that sports and politics now go hand in hand," said Jacques Gasnier, a 61-year-old municipal employee who watched the protests in front of the ornate City Hall. "It is easier to demonstrate today than boycott Chinese products or ban Chinese boats from entering our harbors."
Chinese television showed no footage of Monday's events, which were covered extensively by international TV networks and Web sites.
The protests were an escalation of demonstrations that disrupted the torch relay Sunday in London. Police there tackled protesters to the ground when activists tried to grab the flame. Thirty-seven people were arrested.
David Wallechinsky, an Olympic historian and author, called Monday's protests "unprecedented" in their scope and organization, noting that other torch processions had been disrupted only "by the occasional odd person who jumps out."
The International Olympic Committee allowed the problem to spiral by failing to put pressure on China after awarding the Games in 2001, Wallechinsky said. "The IOC waited too long," he charged. "They should have dealt with the Chinese Communist Party earlier."
In France, Olympic athletes have proposed wearing a badge in Beijing emblazoned with the Olympic rings below the words "France" and "For a better world" to demonstrate their concern over China's human rights record. French pole vaulter Romain Mesnil, a leader of the campaign, said it was aimed at "putting the Olympic values back into the heart" of the Games.
The growing protests underscore the deep divide between many national governments -- which are developing extensive trade ties with China and are reluctant to offend an emerging economic power -- and their citizens, who often take a harder line on abuses. Recent surveys show that more than half the people in France, Switzerland and Denmark want their countries to boycott the opening ceremony in Beijing on Aug. 8.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has threatened to boycott the opening ceremony. Spokesmen for President Bush and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said they plan to attend. On Monday, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), a candidate for president, called on Bush to boycott the event unless China improves on human rights.
Chinese organizers of the Beijing Olympics held a hastily called news briefing Monday to "strongly condemn" the "separatists" who have disrupted the torch procession.
"The torch relay has been well-welcomed by local people and it's operation has been smooth," said Wang Hui, director of media and communications for the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games. "But it's a pity that a few Tibetan separatists want to disrupt and sabotage the torch relay."
During a March 24 lighting ceremony in Olympia, Greece, Rogge had said the torch relay was designed to be "a journey of harmony, bringing the message of peace to the people of different nationalities, cultures and creeds."
Correspondent Maureen Fan in Beijing, researcher Corinne Gavard in Paris, and staff writers Amy Shipley in Washington and Ashley Surdin in Los Angeles contributed to this report.