French government face dilemma over NATO conference

French government (AFP Photo / Francois Guillot)
The French government has apparently woken up to the risk of holding NATO's 60th Anniversary celebrations in Strasbourg – the European capital of human rights and unity.

The conference is to take place from April 3rd to 5th. A large number of anti-NATO demonstrators will attend from all over Europe and further afield. What started out as a celebration could turn out to be a public order nightmare.

The Strasbourg collective against NATO has increased the pressure on the government by calling on the opposition controlled Strasbourg City Council to support a demonstration in the city centre and not on wasteland far from the official conference. An open letter to the Mayor Roland Reis states “the signatories fail to understand the refusal of the Strasbourg local authority to allow a demonstration to follow a route near the city centre. Equally they reject the characterisation of a democratic and peaceful demonstration as criminal.”


“The Bridge of Europe”. Click to enlarge

Reiner Braun the German spokesman for the international coordination committee of the counter NATO summit told RT “The demonstration in the streets of Strasbourg will be enormous. People will come from all over by plane and by train. Dozens of coaches are being hired to bring people in”. This is confirmed by reports from the Stop the War movement in London which organized the biggest protest in British history against the Iraq war in 2003 with over one million on the streets of London. They say their supporters are already paying 73 Pounds to reserve coach seats to Strasbourg. Many demonstrators will first take part in the demonstration in London to mark the meeting of the G20 major economic countries on April 2nd and then go on to Strasbourg.

The anti NATO Collective has been encouraged by the news the American Professor Noam Chomsky, a critic of US foreign policy, says he will attend the Anti NATO conference to be held in the protest village in Strasbourg.

Reiner Braun says elected representatives of countries attending the official conference are being lobbyed demanding they support the right to demonstrate in the centre of Strasbourg. German Member of the European Parliament Tobias Pflüger is to lead a deputation of MEPs to meet the President of the Parliament Hans Gert Pöttering and ask for his support.

The authorities have so far refused to consider making any concessions towards allowing a demonstration within the City of Strasbourg and have put off negotiations for two weeks. Instead they have begun a bureaucratic counter offensive. They have agreed to a village for the Anti-Nato protestors but in a letter dated 20th February the Prefect, the French government representative, asks for evidence of insurance policies, full details of those responsible for the village, the security measures being taken, how many vehicles will be there and what steps are being taken to see that there is no obstruction through parking, the expected attendance, an evacuation plan if necessary and the access plan for fire and ambulance services.

He concludes “I remind you that as occupier of the site you are obliged to share in the costs of preparation and use of the site – water, electricity, rubbish collection etc. Please let me know how much your financial contribution will be.” It is not yet known how much the official conference will cost French taxpayers but Baden-Baden alone is to spend 12 million euros, with between 12 and 15,000 police in attendance occupying three hundred hotels around a town of 55,000 people. The Prefect for Strasbourg has refused to specify how many police and military will be on duty in Strasbourg saying “it is not part of the French culture to give such information”. However it has been revealed that flight plans are being prepared for 70 helicopters to hover over the city.

In addition new controls on the inhabitants of Strasbourg have been announced some of which have the effect of making any movement in Strasbourg impossible for potential demonstrators on the 4th April. All public transport is to be closed in the city from midnight onwards. Traffic on Europe's busiest river, the Rhine is to be stopped as well. This will prevent any access to the symbolic Bridge of Europe which connects France and Germany where an event is planned for the visiting dignitaries. French spokesman for the demonstrators, Frederic Henry told RT they have also demanded the right to meet there pointing out that “the bridge is a symbol of peace in Europe and should not be reserved for NATO”.


The Rhine – the busiest river in Europe. Click to
enlarge

At a government level Prime Minister François Fillon has met the challenge of the 30 to 40 members of parliament within his own UMP party who have made it clear that they are not happy about France rejoining the integrated military structure of NATO. They fear being forced by the United States into greater involvement in Afghanistan and any other military confrontation that may arise. They regret the loss of France's independent position that made possible the refusal to take part in the attack on Iraq in 2003. He has threatened a vote of confidence to be held in March. This faces the rebels with the dilemma that if they defeat the government they will force its resignation and shoot themselves in the foot. The winners would then be the Socialist opposition who are just as likely to support NATO as the government, should they win a general election and get back into power.

The French government now finds itself between a rock and a hard place. The more dramatic the measures they take to prevent an effective demonstration, the less democratic they look. NATO is supposed to be about spreading democracy. On the other hand they fear a huge and uncontrollable demonstration in the centre of Strasbourg. Government employees now admit privately the choice of the city was regrettable. At the same time international public opinion is increasingly beginning to question the logic of the NATO alliance in the context of the financial and economic crisis. It is not difficult to persuade people who face the loss of their jobs that an expensive military alliance and foreign wars are luxuries they can do without in the absence of any convincing external threat.

Robert Harneis for RT