Published on Friday, December 8, 2000 in the Independent / UK
On the Streets at the Nice Summit:
Amid the Clouds of Tear Gas, A Disparate Alliance is United in Protest
by Stephen Castle
Opposite the smoke-stained Banque National de Paris, Yves Mercier was moving computer equipment from the smashed-up front of his estate agency yesterday morning. Tear gas rounds lay in the gutter and a carpet of smashed security covered the pavement; on the roads police barricades lay overturned, on the walls the slogan "Death to Money" took pride of place.
What did Mr Mercier make of the protest which resulted in £20,000 of damage to his office? "What can I think?" said Mr Mercier. "This is not a problem for Europe, it is a police problem. Of course, they protect the politicians, but the businesses? Not at all."
European summits used not to be like this.
We are used to massive over-policing, to sharp-shooters on roofs and strict security screening, to arrangements which leave the politicians dozens of miles from the press let alone the public.
The most serious threat at European Councils has usually been the over-zealous distribution of leaflets by Kurdish demonstrators. While the motorcades swept to and from the Fortezza da Basso in Florence or Dublin Castle the greatest inconvenience to the citizenry was disruption to traffic as huge chunks of the city were sealed off.
Yesterday all that changed. This may not have been a demonstration like Seattle, where the entire conference was swamped in a sea of human protest, but it was a significant turning point.
On Wednesday, up to 60,000 protesters had begun to gather for what turned out to be a peaceful day of protest. Sponsored by the European trades unions, the demonstration was timed to coincide with the launch of Europe's new Charter of Fundamental Rights. While this has been greeted as an unwelcome intrusion by Tony Blair, Europe's unions object to the fact it has no legal status and does little to entrench the social rights they expected.
But just after 9am yesterday the mood changed. A thick black cloud of smoke could be seen pouring from the Banque Nationale de Paris in Rue Barla just one block from the enormous Acropolis centre at which the 15 heads of government of the EU, plus the leaders of 13 applicant countries, were holding talks.
Fire services were pelted with rocks when they arrived to fight the blaze. As they retreated, police fired volleys of tear gas and stun grenades to drive back the protesters.
Police believe the disruption yesterday morning involved about 1,000 protesters. Many wearing gas masks, were earlier in a noisy stand-off with dozens of riot police armed with gas grenades and batons.
By mid-afternoon the French prime minister, Lionel Jospin, was in full flow about such an affront to a European Union summit. The demonstration on Wednesday by 60,000 people had, he said, been "peaceful and legitimate" but yesterday saw a group which was "scandalously engaging in violence".
At Seattle, Bill Clinton confessed his support for the demonstrators but Europe's leaders dug in. Mr Blair, meanwhile, said: "I do not understand what they are protesting about and it would be a complete failure to leadership if we were to give into these protesters."
So who were the protesters of Nice and why did they take to the streets?
The formal gathering was a blend of the organised trade unions and non-governmental organisations representing "civil society". The unofficial additions were a mixture of Basque protesters, students and others protesting against globalisation, including the Alliance pour la Souveraineté de la France campaigning groups which have links with José Bové, the French nationalist who has attacked the symbols of international capitalism including McDonald's.
Most were peaceful and many were highly articulate. Even from the less-educated, such as Pietro Tavazani, a farmer who has travelled with his cow from near Milan, to spend yesterday blocking the Avenue de la Republic, the complaint was the same. Around the neck of the animal, named after José Bové, was the slogan "Globaliziazione no grazie".
Not far away, underneath a banner proclaiming loyalty to Che Guevara and next to a statue of Garibaldi, his compatriot, Corrado Scarnato, an official from the Italian Communist party in Bologna, had the same complaint. "We are opposed to the Charter of Fundamental Rights because in this summit, leaders of the European countries did not include enough social rights for workers and young people. They are against the right to have a job.
"We are for the EU, but not for a union of commerce and trade. We are against globalisation".
The same message comes from Sonia Dora, a student from Nantes who, along with 150 others from the city and from Rennes, have come to Nice to protest for free public transport. To make their point they did not buy tickets and five fellow students were arrested when the police surrounded the station at Nice. This is, says Ms Dora, a "anti-capitalist, anti-fascist movement" against a Europe which is a "liberal economic construction".
Michel Collin, 22, from Brest, also sees Europe as a remote, anti-democratic institution. "The European Commission is unelected, it is not legitimate," he said. "The French press do not understand the effect of directives. There has been no debate about the treaty they want to agree at Nice." Mr Collin's organisation is the Alliance pour la Souveraineté. "José Bové address the problems in agriculture", he said, "but all social areas are touched by directives which are disconnected from the people".
The rebellion against globalisation has become a European theme, one which has even percolated well into the middle classes, particularly in France.
But the picket of the summit, represented another strand too: a growing demand for involvement in the decisions of the European Union.
Leaders have talked airily of the "democratic deficit" and yesterday it stared them in the face.
Giampiero Alhadeff, secretary general of Solidar, an umbrella group of non-governmental organisations, argues: "In any big demonstration you will find someone who will throw a brick through a window. But we as non-governmental organisations are saying that we have been excluded from this summit. We want the summit to recognise that civil society has a place.
"In Seattle last year we were part of the EU delegation. Today, there is a cordon one mile around the summit. That is not on. We want to participate, we don't want to be left a mile from the meeting."
© 2000 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd.