Every day is May Day for the police of Paris - Nazis, Scientologists


06/19/2001 - Updated 02:42 PM ET

Every day is May Day for the police of Paris

By Vivienne Walt, Special for USA TODAY

PARIS -- Pierre Mure's office has a view to die for: the Notre Dame Cathedral and the tree-lined banks of the Seine river.

But the view inside his office makes Mure, director of public order and traffic for the Paris police, perhaps one of the city's most stressed men.

Beside his desk, four television monitors show pictures from cameras mounted on hundreds of lampposts across Paris. One shows workers marching through a busy neighborhood on the Right Bank to protest layoffs. Another shows a group protesting low wages at an expensive pastry shop.

And behind Mure's desk, the television news shows state-paid midwives marching through the busy Left Bank area to protest increased responsibilities without increased pay. "We have seen all of you naked!" says one angry banner held aloft by two midwives.

Today, thousands of left-wing protesters are expected on the streets to mark May Day, the day that honors the international workers' movement -- and guarantees yet another headache for Mure's office.

Paris protests have become so pervasive and continuous that last year there were more than 1,700 demonstrations in the capital, more than six every working day, Mure says. That number is about the same as the year before, and the total is up by about 500 a year since the mid-1990s, according to police figures. More than 5,200 officers are assigned full time to demonstration control in Mure's department, which the city created two years ago to monitor the protests. Many days, even that show of force is not enough.

And there is no sign the public outpourings are cooling off.

Fueling public furor are a series of political and corruption scandals, mergers of international companies that threatened thousands of layoffs and fear over the incursion of global economic and political forces on France. In addition, the demonstrations have proved effective: Street protests precipitated the resignation of two Cabinet ministers last year.

"Paris is asphyxiated by demonstrations," read a recent headline in France's largest daily newspaper, Le Figaro. The newspaper pointed out that in London, "one can count the protests organized each year on one hand."

Although there were nearly 5,300 marches, parades and demonstrations in Washington, D.C., in 2000, according to police and the U.S. Park Service, most were held on or around the central green area known as the National Mall. Only about 10% of protest activities in the U.S. capital result in street closings, authorities say.

In Paris, police figures show about 56 million people protested in the streets from 1993 through 1999 the equivalent of France's total population. "What can we do?" Mure, 53, says with a Gallic shrug of the shoulders. "This is the tradition of our French culture."

Parisians have taken to the streets for centuries, perhaps figuring it was a great success in 1789, when the masses stormed the Bastille prison about a mile from what is now Mure's office. That action sparked the French Revolution.

But Paris was small then. Today, the capital's 2 million people face an endless round of traffic diversions and blockades of major boulevards to accommodate "manifestations" or "manifs," as they are called here. To help Parisians plan their daily journeys, newspapers now publish maps using symbols of people holding placards to mark streets where demonstrations are expected to erupt.

Since 1935, French law has permitted people to hold a demonstration simply by writing to the police to declare their intentions.

"You don't have to ask permission," Mure says. "You just say you are doing this, and then we try to negotiate a route with the organizers."

About one-fifth of protests happen with no permission, he says, although the police still monitor them and include them in their yearly statistics. Under the law, Paris' police chief can ban a march only if he expects serious trouble that he believes he cannot control. Only two marches since 1999 have been banned: one by the Church of Scientology, the other by neo-Nazis.

Although visitors might find the situation odd, neither the government nor protesters seem ready to contemplate any changes.

"When we say things in a closed room, there is no impact at all," says Jacques Girod, deputy secretary of the trade union Force Ouvriere, which represents about 800,000 public and private workers. The union's members attend hundreds of demonstrations a year. "The streets are the best way. We have to keep the demonstrations going in order to show the government we are serious."

Unfortunately for Paris, official buildings are packed into the center of the city. Because millions of people work for government agencies or rely on public-assistance programs, Paris is the mecca for most demonstrators.

Many days, lines of buses are parked along boulevards, having dropped off demonstrators from outlying areas. "Everyone from the provinces comes to Paris to demonstrate," says Mure, who keeps a thick ring binder on his desk listing each week's planned protests, and a photocopied map on the wall, updated each day, showing their routes.

Now, Mure is gearing up for a long summer. "The demonstrations can last for six hours when the weather is nice," he says.

Gazing at the priceless view, he concedes, "It is such a nice day outside to be protesting on the streets."


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