French Town Under Siege Before G8 Summit

PARIS – Evian-les-Bains is a little bit of European heaven.

On one side, the serene, dappled-grey waters of Lake Geneva, with the twinkling lights of Switzerland beckoning in the distance. On the other, the exhilarating backdrop of the Alps, whose snow-fed mineral water sustained Evian’s economy long after the aristocrats who had made the resort one of Europe’s playgrounds left town.

Today, anyone living in Evian or even venturing within a couple of kilometres of it must think they have set foot in some earthly purgatory.

The reason: France has gone into security overdrive to prepare the town for a Group of Eight (G8) summit on June 1-3. It will be the first time since the start of the Iraq war that President George W. Bush will meet the heads of France, Germany and Russia, the so-called Axis of Weasels that opposed the conflict.

Around 18,000 police, gendarmes, riot units and Army troops, supported by barricades of barbed wire, armoured vehicles, anti-aircraft missiles, helicopters, special forces frogmen and patrol boats have been mustered. All flights around the summit zone have been banned, as has boat traffic on France’s side of the lake.

Switzerland, on its side of the lake, has readied nearly 10,000 police and soldiers to secure Lausanne and declared the city centre with its 1300 shops a no-go area.

Within Evian itself, the authorities have begun issuing 12,000 specially numbered summit badges to each resident. For a week, from May 28 to June 3, every Evian citizen must display their badge or risk being expelled.

“It’s not a good idea to invite friends [to Evian] during this period,”

Georges Ambroise, spokesman for the summit’s security organisers, said. “You would be better advised to visit them instead.”

On April 1, the CRS anti-riot police began patrolling the town. This week, all campsites within a 30km radius are to close until the end of the summit, and a ban imposed on all unauthorised meetings. From May 15, all construction sites are to stop work.

Press reports say that security is invasive and pervasive, and not too far removed from the 1960s cult TV series The Prisoner. For months, they say, spies from the French equivalents of Special Branch and MI5 have infiltrated the population of Evian, discreetly photographing faces and noting names, observing changes in neighbourhood routines and asking shopkeepers questions about newcomers.

Officially, only Evian and a few neighbouring villages will be declared out of bounds, except to authorised residents and visitors and accredited journalists. But the evidence is that the authorities intend to create a de facto security zone in a radius of 30km to prevent anti-globalisation protesters from making Evian a synonym for violent protest in the same lineage as Seattle and Genoa. Between 100,000 and 300,000 demonstrators are expected.

The Group of Eight comprises the G7 – Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States – plus Russia and the European Commission. This year, China has been invited for the first time.

The annual summit was initially launched by France in the mid-1970s to help the world’s richest economies deal informally with big crises such as the oil shock and monetary instability.

But its list of memorable achievements is almost zero. Recent summits have been noticeable only because of the length of their vacuous final communiquaacés, the distance at which the political leaders have been kept from the public and the outrageous cost of organising the meetings.

Last year’s bash, in the Canadian Rockies’ resort of Kananaskis, cost around US$200 million ($347 million). The record is held by Japan, which shelled out US$750 million to hold the G8 summit in Okinawa in 2000. The bill included a US$25 million press centre that was purpose-built for the three-day meeting; a roster of 125 chefs to attend to the whims of the summit leaders; and a US$750,000 replica, accurate down to the last detail, of Bill Clinton’s boyhood home in Arkansas for the President to stay in for a couple of nights.

France, fighting rising unemployment and urging its public to tighten its belts and save for their old age because of a crisis facing the pension system, is keeping its lips very tightly sealed. The true cost of the Evian extravaganza may never be known.