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.

Christophe Ena/AP
Security: Protesters tried to mar world champion runner Stephane Diagana's kick-off leg of the relay Monday.
François Mori/AP
The Olympic torch arrives in San Francisco Wednesday after being met by determined protesters in Paris yesterday. In one of the more spectacular scenes, flag-toting activists manacled themselves to the Eiffel Tower as rescuers approach them.

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.

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 But the scene was quickly superseded by French and Tibetan protesters who launched themselves at the torch procession.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.

China reacted angrily, calling the protests around the flame "vile."

"During the relay, we have met with some disturbance, but we hope the peace-loving people of the world will widely support the Beijing Olympic torch relay," said Wang Hui, a spokesman for the organizing committee of the Summer Games in Beijing, on Sunday.

The day before, Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), said that there was "no momentum" toward a boycott of the Games.

But on Monday, Mr. Rogge broke with his vow to avoid any mention of politics in the same breath as the Games. He appealed publicly to Chinese authorities in Beijing to find "a quick and peaceful solution" for Tibet.

French government officials had no apologies. Human rights activists acted within their rights and their responsibilities, said Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who comes from the same activist circles. But few experts seemed to think that the torch-relay protests alone would change much, either in China or in France.

"It's an illusion to dream that China will fully respect human rights in the short or long term at the demand of Western countries," said Pascal Boniface, director of the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris, in an interactive interview on the website of the influential newspaper, Le Monde.

Still the Paris demonstrations could add momentum to efforts to find a common European position that might bring a shift in Chinese policies.

France takes over the rotating presidency of the European Union in July, a chance for Mr. Sarkozy to act on a bigger stage. If he boycotts the August opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics in Beijing, as human rights groups are demanding, his absence would take on a European dimension.

So far, Mr. Sarkozy has said little more than that he is considering all options. But he is also keeping Ms. Yade out in public, front and center, where she has been speaking in a manner that gives heart to boycott campaigners. It is open to debate whether she is the president's foil, a human trial balloon, or a free agent when it comes to berating China over human rights abuses.

Last week, she was quoted by Le Monde as saying that the president would make his appearance in Beijing conditional on China's release of political prisoners, talking to the Dalai Lama about Tibet's status, and ending "violence against the people."

She later denied she had meant those were actual conditions, but the newspaper stood behind its report.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.