G8 behind the barricades

Thursday 29 May 2003, by Pepe ESCOBAR

Preventive war has arrived with a vengeance at the placid shores of Lac Leman - or Lake Geneva. The Group of Eight (G8) summit starts this Sunday in Evian, of mineral-water fame.

Evian, a modern deluxe spa clad in Belle Epoque architecture, lies on the south shore of Lake Geneva facing Switzerland, less than 45 kilometers from Geneva. By a splendid twist of history, this will be the place where the conqueror of Iraq, George W Bush, will set foot on "enemy" French soil - or continent for that matter, since in an overwhelmingly anti-war Europe millions of people bothered to display their displeasure with US foreign policy during mass demonstrations on February 15. This is also the first G8 summit in Europe since an Italian police officer shot dead Italian student Carlo Giuliani during the G8 summit in Genoa in 2001.

If George W Bush is able to sip his Evian alongside Vladimir Putin of Russia, the UK’s Tony Blair and France’s Jacques Chirac et al, this is because Evian the city will be literally under siege - already ringed by a series of concentric and ultra-tight security zones. Since this Wednesday, and until next Tuesday, June 3, 12,000 "lucky" Evian residents have to wear security badges. With no badge, you can’t go anywhere, or even come back home: you will be literally expelled from your home town until next Tuesday. Much-feared French CRS (Compagnie Republicaine de Securite) special forces have been on constant patrol since early April (their initial mission was to prevent the spread of anti-G8 graffiti). Helicopters dance the Swan Lake in the skies: when Asia Times Online visited a few days ago, they were engaged in intercepting boats on Lake Geneva.

France and Switzerland signed an agreement through which French forces are allowed to intervene in the Swiss waters of Lake Geneva. The very charming square facing Evian harbor is now decorated with anti-missile vehicles. In the eye of the war zone, right-wing Mayor Marc Francina puts on a brave face, expecting to transfer to his community, the so-called perle du Leman ("the pearl of Lake Geneva"), the high-class popularity of its bottles of mineral water.

Evian was chosen because it’s an enclave: surrounded by mountains, right beside the lake, and easy to protect. After the debacle in Genoa, the G8 summit in 2002 was in Kananaskis, Alberta, an isolated spot in the Rocky Mountains: journalists and activists were deported to another town. In Evian, cynical residents prefer to pretend they are in the middle of a James Bond movie. The whole security operation is overwhelming, and involves at least 25,000 people.

The French side deployed at least 11,000 officers, dozens of Mirage 2000 fighter planes, a number of Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) planes, 60 combat helicopters, a number of drones, batteries of surface-to-air missiles, and anti-chemical and anti-bacteriological units. The Swiss side deployed at least 12,000 police - as the G8 organizers wanted. But the Geneva authorities thought it would not be enough, so they decided to import at least 1,000 extra Germans. Both the left and the ultra-nationalist right in fiercely independent Switzerland were furious.

Geneva airport is virtually surrounded. It’s forbidden to fly over the city or navigate on Lake Geneva: even Swiss swans have to be extra careful, otherwise they could be blown up by submarine teams. The whole region was divided into three zones: the crucial one is Zone Zero, turned into a no man’s land of 30 square kilometers where the heads of state and their teams of experts will congregate.

The border between France and Switzerland has been re-established from May 22 to June 4 - to an avalanche of protests and accusations of "fascism". The Swiss are used to crossing the French border to buy the odd fabulous bread or the odd splendid wine, and 20,000 French citizens commute every day to work in Geneva. Now they also must show their badges. There are new traffic jams around the clock. Customs officers, now with additional help from military personnel, examine practically every vehicle looking for possible troublemakers.

The combined gross domestic product of the United States, Western Europe and Japan is roughly US$20 trillion, 80 percent of the world’s GDP. The so-called leaders of the free world may need to be barricaded to make (or rather ratify) decisions that affect the whole world. But the affected are increasingly entertaining different ideas. Starting this Thursday, a counter-summit will be under way in the nearby French town of Annemasse, 40 kilometers from Evian, dubbed "Summit for a Different World" (or SPAM, its French acronym - Sommet pour un autre monde). SPAM will not just rely on rhetoric or anti-G8 diatribes: it will try to follow up on many proposals discussed at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, last January. And at least 100,000 people are expected this Sunday in a big demonstration running between Geneva and Annemasse - the demonstration that for the security apparatus is as dangerous as an al-Qaeda attack.

Organizers of the alternative summit qualify the G8 security paranoia as "delirious" and part of a "strategy of tension" to provoke alter-globalization activists coming from all over Europe, especially Italy, Germany and Scandinavia. There were rumors about a blacklist, US-style, of thousands of European activists. Last Saturday, a group of heads of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other groups involved in the counter-summit met with the hardline and consummate demagogue French interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy: he strongly denied the existence of a blacklist, and he seemed to be pleased there will be people checking every police excess during the counter-summit and the big demonstration on Sunday.

Geneva, the capital of international diplomacy - and basically a glorified village - is even more puzzled than Evian. Its internationalist, pragmatic residents, in cafes and restaurants, don’t believe they will be invaded by "barbarian hordes", and speak instead of "the curfew" or "the war". Geneva will be virtually shut down. Some bankers recommended that their employees adopt casual wear: no one should flaunt their Armani in front of alter-globalizers. Schoolchildren in neighboring Lausanne have rehearsed urgent-evacuation procedures. There will be no money in the automatic teller machines. There will be no postal service - as well as no Big Macs in the five McDonald’s based in Geneva. The high-class commerce in central Geneva that soothes wealthy Arab visitors - jewelry, watches, furs, haute couture, banks - is also in disarray: some are literally barricaded, and some display the word "Peace" written in every conceivable Western language.

Geneva authorities even advised the population simply to go away. The ones who stayed were advised to camouflage their cars. But this may also pose an unsurmountable problem because most subterranean parking lots are closed. The police say they are preparing to face from 1,500-3,500 "potentially violent" demonstrators. But the really violent are not the alter-globalizers but the ultra-fascists from the Black Block, who severely disrupted the G8 in Genoa in 2001. It’s hard to predict how many demonstrators there will be this weekend: any number from 100,000-300,000 is being floated. Geneva with all its cantons has about 400,000 residents.

The alter-globalizers will not be allowed to wear helmets or masks. Three big demonstrations are on the cards, and also what is being called operation "Fire in the Lake": on Saturday, in a mood that evokes the old European peasant revolts, at least 40 fires will be lighted around Lake Geneva, on both the French and Swiss shores, symbolically encircling the Evian summit.

The heads of state of the G8 - Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and the US - plus their special guests will arrive at a Geneva airport under siege by the security forces. And they will be transferred by helicopter to Evian. But thousands of diplomats and officials may be ultimately bogged down by the alter-globalizers’ tactics. On Sunday, the idea is to prevent delegates housed in Lausanne from reaching the ferries that will bring them south across Lake Geneva to Evian. Another plan is to block the very narrow road to Evian to other delegates commuting from hotels in Geneva.

The alter-globalization movement is now a galaxy. But many stars still don’t interconnect. In Annemasse, for instance, there’s a place called Vaaag - the French acronym for Alternative, Anti-capitalist, anti-War Village - housing anarchists and libertarians of all sorts. The Intergalactic Village is preferred by neo-radicals and the alternative press. The so-called Point G is basically a feminist camp. But some, such as Christophe Aguiton, head of international relations of the French NGO Attac, are very much aware of the power of the people as a whole: he says that starting from 100,000 marching in Seattle in 1999, 10 million were on the streets during the anti-war demonstrations of February 15.

Ultra-paranoid intelligence services fear that al-Qaeda will try to hit the G8 summit - thus the massive security apparatus. But this is not the heart of the matter. What a post-Iraq-war G8 in a viscerally anti-war continent will determine is the evolution of the key conflict between the self-anointed Masters of the Universe and world public opinion. Since Seattle in 1999 to Genoa in 2001, Porto Alegre in 2001 and 2002, Florence in 2002 and the worldwide demonstrations in February 2003, anti-globalization has mutated into alter-globalization - and merged with the global anti-war movement.

A new, young, militant generation has come to life and has displayed its maturity - questioning neo-liberal mantras, yearning for more social, environmental and truly democratic justice, questioning the political, economic and military management of the whole planet. What the "troublemakers" are asking is how a small group of heads of state allegedly representing the world’s privileged few (Russians included?) can get away with deciding for everybody else. No wonder world public opinion - represented by these "troublemakers" - is so dangerous that it warrants launching a preventive war in Lake Geneva.

This article has been published on Vancouver IndyMedia and on rabble.ca

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