The global procession of the Olympic flame – a symbol of sporting values hijacked as a symbol of Chinese state pride – stumbled into abject political embarrassment for Beijing and Western governments yesterday.
The day after determined protests in London, a 17-mile torch relay through Paris dissolved into chaos, farce and, finally, cancellation. The torch, although not the master flame, was extinguished at least four times as an elaborate security screen failed to fend off pro-Tibet and human rights demonstrators.
Finally, at the insistence of the Chinese officials, the finale of the five-hour parade was abandoned. The flame was carried ignominiously through the streets of the City of Light in a police bus. French television and news agencies talked last night of a "security fiasco". Activists spoke of a triumph for the defence of Tibetan and human rights.
The French government, which has blown hot and cold in its response to the Chinese crackdown in Tibet, had mobilised everything from police on roller skates to helicopters to protect the torch procession. Beijing flooded the French capital with thousands of enthusiastic Chinese students from all over Europe. But the result was an unequivocal victory for the relatively small, scattered hit-squads of Tibetan and French – and a few Chinese – protesters.
Protesters in Paris
With similar protests planned in San Francisco, Delhi and other stops on the flame's 21-nation, six-continent tour, Beijing must be regretting its decision to stage the longest and most complex torch relay in the history of the Olympics. Yesterday, three pro-Tibet activists unfurled a banner after climbing the cables of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge to protest at the arrival of the torch in the city tomorrow.
Instead of a celebration of China's emergence as a world power, the journey of the flame has turned into a trail of shame: the most intensive, international protests against Beijing's human rights violations since the student massacres in Tienanmen Square in 1989.
Paris – which claims to be the city which invented human rights – comprehensively outdid London in its anti-Beijing protests. The torch had to be doused for security reasons four times as the bearer was bundled aboard a bus to avoid protesters who repeatedly broke through a supposedly unbreachable cordon.
Three human rights activists armed with mountaineering gear climbed part of the way up the Eiffel Tower to unfurl a banner portraying the interlocking Olympic rings as handcuffs.
The Chinese abruptly ordered the cancellation of an official reception for the torch at Paris city hall after Green Party politicians hung a similar banner, and a blue, red and yellow Tibetan flag, from the front of the building. Denis Baupin, the Greens' assistant mayor of Paris described the day as a "great victory", adding: "We stopped China from pretending it is a country like any other, a respectable country."
The Mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, who had been criticised for agreeing to receive the flame at the city hall, said China was partly to blame for yesterday's catastrophe because it had shown it could not abide peaceful protest.
"The Chinese officials decided they would not stop [at the city hall] because they were offended by Parisian citizens expressing their support for human rights. It is Beijing's responsibility," M. Delanoë said.
Earlier, there were scuffles and a handful of arrests as demonstrators confronted large groups of Chinese students, many of whom had been bused into Paris from other European countries. On the whole, the French riot police kept the peace well but they appeared to be under orders to give more freedom of movement to the pro-Chinese demonstrators than to the anti-Chinese.
In theory, the torch was to be sealed from public and protesters by a security cordon 200m long. A phalanx of 100 roller-skating policemen guarded one flank and 100 jogging firemen defended the other. As in London, Chinese security guards in bright blue tracksuits surrounded the torch-bearer. Police trucks and motorcycles drove ahead and behind. A helicopter hovered overhead. In practice, those elaborate defences broke down even before the torch began its zig-zag procession through Paris from the first floor of the Eiffel Tower.
A Green politician, Sylvain Garel, who was part of the official launch party, made a grab for the first torch-bearer, a former champion hurdler, Stéphane Diagana. M. Garel shouted "freedom for the Chinese" and was dragged away and briefly arrested.
A few minutes later, a group of protesters breached the cordon as the parade headed west along the Seine. The torch and torch-bearer were bundled into a police bus and the flame extinguished for security reasons. The torch was re-lit from the lantern carrying the Olympic flame itself, which was carried inside the bus.
Half an hour later, a group of protesters swarmed towards another of the torch-bearers, an athlete in a wheelchair, as she emerged from an underpass. The flame was extinguished by officials as the torch was hidden away on the bus for a second time.
The procedure was repeated at least twice more as the torch made a stop-start, now you-see-it, now-you-don't journey through Paris. On the fourth occasion, close to the Louvre, a single protester ran towards the torch-bearer with a small fire extinguisher. He was seized by police and carried away.
Pro-Tibet activists and Chinese students screamed slogans at each other. At a junction just across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower, the two sides confronted each other for several hours, separated by a row of white police vans and by lines of honking cars, buses, trucks and taxis.