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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 April, 2003, 16:16 GMT 17:16 UK
Anti-war anger simmers in Paris
Mark Coyle byline pic
By Mark Coyle
BBC News Online

Little more than a month ago, the air in the streets of Paris crackled with anti-war sentiment.

In the cafés, on the boulevards and in the markets, it was difficult to move far without being exhorted to accept fliers urging people to mass meetings and protest marches in a show of defiance against George Bush and Tony Blair.

Paris cafe scene
Street life has returned to normal
Today, the atmosphere is different.

Newspaper stands carry titles which continue to reflect the day-to-day diplomatic wrangling that now characterises the relationship between the Elysee Palace and the White House.

But gone are the obvious signs of public unrest which saw up to 100,000 demonstrators take to the streets in mid-February as the international focus fell on the need (or not) for a second resolution endorsing a war against Iraq.

Out of sight maybe, but not out of mind.

Several days ago, in a leafy, affluent suburb of Paris, one British resident was accosted by an angry Frenchman with the words: "English killers!"

Anti-war feelings in France remain but not everyone is opposed and some views have changed

This incident appears isolated with the focus of French anger not the citizens of Britain and the US, but the administrations.

As the coalition forces advanced in Iraq, the British Embassy in Paris received a steady stream of almost exclusively negative emails and letters. There was a particularly outraged response to the Sun newspaper's portrayal of the French President, Jacques Chirac, as a worm.

Embassy spokesman Richard Morgan identifies two key moments that turned the tide. One was a photograph carried by Le Figaro of a helmetless female British soldier atop a tank in Basra, which seemed to typify the UK forces' ability to deal more sensitively with Iraqi civilians than their American counterparts.

Cemetery attack

The other was the desecration of a British WWI cemetery near Boulogne at the end of March.

"People thought that was one step far too far," Mr Morgan said. "We got all kinds of letters of sympathy then saying, whatever we think about the war in Iraq doesn't mean that we are in any way ungrateful - so that started to balance out much more."

If newspaper polls are anything to go by, French public opinion softened between the onslaught of the US and British forces on 20 March and the toppling of Saddam's statue in Baghdad a month or so later.

Xavier Berjot, 28, a solicitor in Paris, said: "At the beginning I was against the war because of the position of France.

"But when I heard people on television, refugees from Iraq, who were in favour of the war, I started to change my mind and when I saw the country liberated, I was in favour."

Rev Bill Reid
I think Colin Powell has sold his soul
Rev. Bill Reid

Spend even a short time strolling down famous French thoroughfares such as the Champs Elysees and it does not take long to hear American and British accents.

Despite the war and reports of some mutual cancelling of holidays on both sides of the English Channel, the love affair with Paris goes on.

Bill Reid, Church of Scotland minister at the Scots Kirk, Paris, for 10 years, took part in that anti-war demonstration in February.

He was, and remains, staunchly opposed to the conflict and said that the groundswell of French opinion was "largely against".

But he went on: "I followed some email correspondence on Liberation's site for a while and there was a fair mix of opinion expressed there.

"The majority were anti but within the small minority there were some very vocal pro-America, pro-Britain stances."

Discontent

Whilst the daily manifestations of the anti-war sentiment have subsided on the streets of Paris, the discontent has merely sunk below the level of ordinary, everyday life. It has not disappeared altogether.

"I sense in a lot of people with whom I have spoken in the last 10 days, a great feeling of disillusionment and discouragement because we did all we could as ordinary citizens," Mr Reid continued.

Le Monde on sale in Paris
Newspaper polls show opinion softening

"What did it all do? I think that in itself will depress at least the outward signs but there remains a very strong peace movement here as in other countries."

In the latest round of verbal hostilities between Paris and Washington, US Secretary of State Colin Powell said France may suffer as a result of its stance.

Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin retorted with a promise to defend international law "in all circumstances".

Bill Reid invoked some spiritual language when he offered his opinion on the latest spat: "I think it will convince many French people that Colin Powell has sold his soul.

"I think there was quite a considerable time when people placed a great deal of hope on Colin Powell being one of the more sensible of the George Bush entourage, a person of integrity who would try his very best to achieve peaceful solutions.

"I think he's sold out on that."




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