G20: Nice holds its breath

Nice held its breath yesterday as the G20 protests came to town. But in the end, tickling with feather dusters was the most serious aggravation endured by police and the only ‘violent’ event was an old mattress being set fire to under a bridge.

Lock-down on the French Riviera

The whole of the French Riviera is about the G20 this week. Activity is centred on Cannes, which is where the official summit is taking place. Cannes regularly hosts large international corporate trade shows such as MIPIM, MAPIC & MIPCOM, as well as the Cannes Film Festival, and so is no stranger to crowd control. However, the current scale of security operations across the Côte d’Azur is unprecedented. Fears of possible terrorism and anti-capitalist action in Nice and Monaco as well as Cannes have led French authorities to attempt to lock-down swathes of the French Riviera. Even free passage across the border from Italy has been scrapped this week, with 330 extra policemen being employed there alone to control border crossings. Given the number of uniforms here right now, I’d be surprised if there are any policemen or soldiers left in the rest of France.

Slaughterhouse and back streets

Not allowed anywhere near Cannes, the political and corporate centre of events, protesters who nonetheless made it to the South of France have congregated in Nice. Here, the authorities have been obliged to provide a focal point for the anti-G20 summit. The powers-that-be in Nice, not known for their left-wing leanings, haven’t put themselves out to welcome protestors. The anti-G20 village has been housed in the town’s former abattoir, next to the railway line, and it was decided that the formal protest march would be kept as far from the beach, commercial areas and public spaces as possible. The permitted route for yesterday’s demonstration led protesters far away from the city centre, weaving through Nice’s less salubrious inner city residential areas and looping roughly around the region’s main commissariat de police.

Preparing for a war zone

On my way to photograph the march, I could imagine tumbleweed blowing through the city centre. Yesterday was a national holiday, and usually the Niçois, lovers of strolling along the promenade in the sunshine, would be out in force. But with local press editorials liberally reminding readers about the ‘war zone’ that Genoa turned into ten years ago during the 2001 G8 summit protests, apparently many residents had felt it best to stay at home for the afternoon.

1 police officer for every 3 demonstrators

Perhaps the efforts of authorities to dissuade protesters are achieving their goal. It was difficult to tell initially whether there were more protesters, photographers or police officers present yesterday. In any case the number of demonstrators was relatively small. According to journalists, there were between 5,000 and 10,000 demonstrators in all – and 2,000 police officers.
Photographers present worked unhindered to capture the colours of the marchers, their banners and costumes, and the relaxed, upbeat spirit of the event. I noticed a surprising number of older people making up the crowd, quietly dressed, walking with their printed signs and looking incredulously at walls of police heavily equipped with riot shields, tear gas and water cannons. I wonder if all the chalked hearts and messages of liberté were visible to those constantly surveilling the protest from two helicopters above, before they were erased by jet washers a few hundred yards behind the protestors.

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