- Olympic Games - Paris - sport
It was billed by the Chinese authorities as “the harmonious journey,” but the Paris leg of the 2008 Olympic torch relay Monday is not going according to script, with protests, arrests and scuffles between pro-Tibet demonstrators and security officials disrupting the flame’s passage through the French capital.
Three times in the course of its 28-kilometer route through the City of Lights, the Olympic flame was extinguished by security officials due to the unprecedented number of demonstrations, forcing authorities to put the torch on a bus for security reasons.
A planned ceremony at the city’s grand City Hall, to mark the torch’s passage through Paris was cancelled, according to the office of the Paris mayor.
"The Chinese officials decided they would not stop here because they were upset by Parisian citizens expressing their support for human rights. It is their responsibility," Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoë told reporters.
Reporting from City Hall, FRANCE 24's Lanah Kammourieh said activists had hung a large Tibetan flag over the building and clashes had broken out between pro and anti-Chinese protesters.
The relay was finally cut short, with the torch reaching the Charlety stadium, on the southern edge of Paris, by bus.
'Demonstrations every few meters'
Scuffles broke out shortly after the relay set off from the Eiffel Tower Monday morning, with “demonstrations every few meters” according to FRANCE 24’s Nicolas Germain, reporting from along the relay route.
“Pro-Tibet demonstrators have been coming out and shouting ‘Free Tibet,’” he added. “The procession is being halted regularly, with demonstrators lying down in the street and police coming to remove them.”
Germain also reported seeing clashes between the police and protesters. Police arrested four people, including two pro-Tibet protesters, for trying to hinder the progress of the torch, according to AFP.
Moments after the relay kicked off at the Eiffel Tower, Sylvain Garel, a Paris city councillor from the Green Party, tried to grab the torch from former world 400-meters hurdles champion Stephane Diagana, shouting, “Free Tibet, Chinese troops out of Tibet.” He was pulled aside before he could reach the torch.
The French authorities were taking extensive measures to protect the Olympic torch from protesters as it makes its way through Paris on Monday on the last leg of its European tour.
Thousands of security personnel had been mobilized – in helicopters, on horseback, roller blades and on foot – in an effort to avoid the kind of scenes seen in London on Sunday, when protesters repeatedly tried to extinguish the torch.
The torch was to be carried by 80 runners in relay on a 28 kilometer route through the French capital from the Eiffel Tower to the Charlety stadium in southern Paris. As it is carried along the banks of the Seine, the flame will be flanked by 100 police on roller blades and 100 jogging firemen, as well as police motorcyclists and 16 security vehicles.
“All those who wish to express themselves can express themselves,” French Sports Junior Minister Bernard Laporte told reporters. “But I don't want there to be any incidents surrounding the torch, because that would be lack of respect for the values it represents”.
An obstacle race
The torch arrived in the French capital late Sunday, after a chaotic trip through London, where it came close to being extinguished by two pro-Tibet activists.
"Free Tibet, Free Tibet" slogans resonated as protestors rallied through the streets with banners and their faces painted in the colours of the Tibetan flag.
British police arrested at least 35 people, including a demonstrator who tried to seize the flame from one of the torchbearers.
Chinese media slammed protests organized by "Tibetan separatists" in London, after it initially censored some reports on the protests.
“Chinese media are trying to play down the significance of the protests,” reports FRANCE 24’s Henry Morton from Beijing. “Domestically it’s still about giving the Olympics a positive spin and playing down any sort of international criticism despite growing calls for a boycott of, at the very least, the opening ceremony of the Olympics.”
Call for peace
The Olympics organizing committee in Beijing strongly condemned the protests. “Members of the organizing committee have strongly condemned the attempt to extinguish the flame and disrupting the relay in London, calling it acts of sabotage,” reports Morton.
International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge voiced concern Monday, and called for a rapid, peaceful resolution of the Tibet crisis. "The torch relay has been targeted," the IOC chief said in a speech in Beijing, admitting the torch relay had been a focus of protests and that the Tibet crisis was casting a shadow over the lead-up to the Games in August.
“Events in Tibet have triggered a wave of protests among governments, media, and non- government organizations,” Rogge added.