Friday, April 03, 2009

Potemkin Strasboug

Les flics staking out Place Kleber

So the 60 anniversary NATO (OTAN, in French) summit is being held here in Strasbourg (shared with Kehl across the river and Baden-Baden further down the Rhine). All the heads of state of all the NATO countries are here, including Obama, on his first continental European visit since his election.

What with France re-joining the military command of NATO, the fiscal crisis, the war in Afghanistan, and all the attention’s Obama’s been getting, the city has been going nuts. Depending on what news source you read, there are either 4500 or 9000 police deployed in the city, largely to ensure order in the face of the 40-50,000 protestors.

For the last week, roughly one person in ten on the streets of Strasbourg has been in uniform – they’ve brought in Gendarmes from all over France, meaning most of the police I’ve seen have been “patrolling” while stopping every few metres to orient themselves with tourist office maps, while helicopters clatter overhead.

They are particularly guarding the edges of the “red” and “orange” security zones. No one can enter the red zone without a “laisser passer.” I’m not sure what the restrictions on the orange zone are – I’m just on the outside of it where I am now - and I’m not inclined to try to find out. My friend Félicie, who needs to cross the orange zone to get to her office, had to sweet-talk two police officers in order to get to work: not being nearly as pretty as her, I suspect I’d have more difficulty getting in.

The protestors have not been idle in the interim. Their action yesterday was to lie on the tram tracks, thus terrorizing heads of state, who normally get around in limousines and jet-aircraft, by causing maximum inconvenience to the protestors’ natural allies: the poor, the environmentally conscious, and students.

In any case, the tediously predictable has already occurred: over 300 have been arrested, with surely many more to come.

I’m no huge fan of these kinds of protests. Too many, like the recent one for the G20 witnessed by Zurika in London, are incoherent at their best, violent at worst. That said, I am no less uncomfortable with the measures used to control them.

Loading 4,500 cops, armoured cars and reserve soldiers into a city of 250,000 is designed to intimidate the citizenry, not protect them. It is sending the message - before any protesters even arrive - that law-abiding people need to be afraid of dissent.

Emergency chemical decontamination unit on Place Gutenberg. Yeah, that's not supposed to be scary. Two days ago, there was a merry-go-round here.

The restriction put in place to enforce the red and orange zones have no basis in French law. Citizens living in the red zone have been told by police officers to remove anti-NATO flags from windows, so as to not offend visiting dignitaries. Heavily armoured police vehicles and riot police stake out protest sites before anyone even shows up.

This is not upholding the law – it is imposing order.

OK, you got what you came for. Now can I have my city back? (photo from

So why host a summit here anyway? As one cranky woman I overheard in our favourite take-out place pointed out, it would make much, much more sense if they hosted these events on a military base. However, as usual, Strasbourg was chosen as it is a “symbol” of post-war reconciliation, and can act as a pretty backdrop for the photo-ops, and a cliché the 6000 journalists can work into their stories. But how much of the city do the leaders see? Not very much at all: most Strasbourgeois are avoiding the city at all costs. Almost all of the businesses downtown are closed.

In fact, the waitress at our favourite café in the red zone (Christian, for those of my readers that have visited us) told us that the city authorities specifically asked them to stay open, just so that all the visitors wouldn’t think that Strasbourg was a ghost town. The differences between that and a Potemkin village are hard to see.


Jul said...

The idea of police puzzling over tourist maps is quite amusing.

They should have set up an off-season Christmas market so the visitors could enjoy Strasbourg at its most touristy.

David Beeson said...

Great to see how effective the massive police presence has turned out to have been: as we crossed the bridge from Kehl this morning, it was to be greeted by the burned out customs building, information office and Ibis Hotel.

Perhaps the tourist maps don't extend that far.