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Wednesday, 3 November, 1999, 17:23 GMT
In the face of protest
A farcical demonstration brings out the riot police

By Jon Sopel in Paris

As we moved off at a sedate pace - 24 tractors, farmers in cars and film crews with their satellite trucks, I had this odd feeling that I had been here before. No, I was new to France and this was my first taste of a farmers' demonstration.

But for many years I covered politics at Westminster, and that involved me from time to time travelling around the world with the prime minister.

This probably sounds dreadfully superficial but one of the most satisfyingly smug things about being part of the prime minister's entourage is that you are then by default also part of his cavalcade.

The plane touches down at Washington, Moscow or wherever and you are escorted into the city centre, through red traffic lights along city streets mysteriously emptied of traffic.

All the time police motorcylcists race up and down blocking access points to other vehicles wanting to get onto the thoroughfare you are travelling. You look out of the window meanwhile feeling hugely self important.

A motorcade

And so it was on Tuesday. No sooner had the leader of the farmworkers stood on top of a tractor and announced - 'Right, let's go and blockade the freight area of the Eurotunnel terminal', than the police cars and motorcylicsts led us away onto the A16 motorway.

Far from trying to stop us, we were formed into a motorcade. A motorcade of protestors about to halt the movement of freight.

Motorway junctions were closed off, other vehicles cleared from our path so that our journey to the channel tunnel would proceed without hindrance.

On arrival police allowed the tractors to spread themselves across the main road out of the terminal. The movement of freight ground to a halt. Tyres were set ablaze and the customs seals on British lorries were prized open with boltcutters. At no time did the police try to intervene.

A farce

I have to contrast this with another rather more farcical demonstration that I had covered the week before. Then it wasn't angry farmers but Tory MEPs who had wanted to march from the Arc de Triomphe down to the British Embassy.

There were 10 of them and they had a banner which read - 'Let them eat cake', Marie Antoinette 1789, 'Let Them Eat British Beef', Tory MEPs 1999.

When our office was told about this planned protest we were in two minds about whether to go. After all 10 rather portly MEPs strolling down the Champs Elysees is not the sort of thing where you ring the editor and say - 'Hold the front page, this is big'.

But we went. The police were irate - understandably perhaps because the Arc de Triomphe is seen as a sacred place ( it's where the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is).

They told them to take down the banner. The deputies to the European parliament complied.

A stand off

They were then told they couldn't march down the Champs Elysee handing out leaflets. If they did they would be arrested. There was a stand off which was broken when the MEPs decided they would go anyway.

At this point the plain clothes officer called in reinforcements. A line of riot police with batons fanned out across Europe's most famous thoroughfare - and no surprise, the Strasbourg 10 (average age probably 50) were halted.

Now there are easy conclusions that can be drawn from this - the police are anglo-phobic - when they react they over react, and really they're hand in glove with their farmers.

I'm not sure that any of those are correct. It's certainly true that the French police worry about public order, and perhaps calculated that to have tried to stop them would have led to ugly clashes, provoking even bigger demonstrations.

Bureaucracy

As for the MEPs well I suspect they hadn't filled in the correct forms. In France bureaucracy is a part of every day life, and unless you have filled everything out in triplicate, you don't go anywhere.

Certainly the police in Paris are not intolerant of demonstrations. It seems a day doesn't go by without someone taking to the streets.

From students, and the unemployed to the extraordinary sight of bankers one Friday afternoon holding placards in one hand and their Louis Vuitton overnight bags in the other before heading out of Paris for the weekend. They were protesting against a proposed bank merger.

These MEPs weren't being banned because of what they were saying, it was because they hadn't told the police in advance.

Little respect

What is true is that the police are shown little respect by the French people. Fairly or unfairly they are often depicted as lazy, a little corrupt and often incompetent.

If you are ever in a traffic jam in Paris and you look in your rear view mirror and see blue flashing lights and hear the sound or a siren, it is worth watching what happens.

Precisely nothing. The car drivers don't clear a path, they don't move out of the way, and from the resigned look on the policemen's faces it seems they don't expect them to either.

So imagine how satisfying it must be therefore to be able to boss around a few uppity British MEPs and to be able to escort around Calais a bunch of protesting farmers.

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See also:
08 Oct 99 |  Education
French students demand better schools
16 Oct 99 |  Europe
Marchers demand jobs
24 Oct 99 |  UK
Beef ban row intensifies

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