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In Paris, Olympic torch ignites protests

Amid numerous disruptions of the torch relay, IOC President Jacques Rogge called on China to quickly resolve unrest in Tibet.

By Susan Sachs / April 8, 2008

Security: Protesters tried to mar world champion runner Stephane Diagana's kick-off leg of the relay Monday.

Christophe Ena/AP

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The Olympic torch made a tortured and much-interrupted journey through Paris on Monday, at various points hustled off the street, carried into a tunnel, transferred to a bus, and extinguished as French protesters staged the biggest China-bashing demonstration in Europe so far.

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The detours along the 17-mile route were coordinated by the Paris-based group, Reporters without Borders, whose president, Robert Ménard, is leading a campaign to boycott the Summer Games in Beijing.

In this global capital of protests, his call has fallen on more than a few sympathetic ears in the halls of power.

The Olympic flame itself never actually went out, despite the best efforts of a group of Paris regional officials who tried to get close to it with a fire extinguisher. The Paris prefect's office said it was transferred "for technical reasons" to a small lamp in the hands of Chinese government guards and used to relight the torch as it was shifted out of the way of demonstrators.

But the last-minute cancellation of a planned ceremony and mayoral speech along the route suggested that the disruptions were more than technical.

The relay began with an iconic image of the torch held aloft by a French athlete with the Eiffel Tower in the background. But the scene was quickly superseded by French and Tibetan protesters who launched themselves at the torch procession. Images of them being pushed away by riot police were broadcast live during the day on international TV.

For the Chinese government, the highly choreographed Paris protest was the second straight public repudiation in the streets of a European capital, after pro-Tibet demonstrations in London on Sunday.

The question of whether or not to boycott the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympic Games has been front-page news here since the Chinese crackdown in Tibet a month ago. Even the staid Le Figaro newspaper ran a supersized front-page headline Monday heralding "the flame of contention" in one-inch high letters.

Unlike in London, though, a range of French politicians and government officials rallied to the protests here.

The capital's Socialist mayor unfurled a giant banner over City Hall declaring "Paris supports human rights everywhere in the world." Most of the athletes carrying the flame wore badges with a similar, if more oblique, sentiment: "for a better world." And President Nicolas Sarkozy's outspoken human rights minister, Rama Yade, condemned what she called China's "colonization" of Tibet.