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French city up in arms over anti-NATO flags

Published on 24/03/2009

Strasbourg – Politicians and protesters in the French city of Strasbourg are up in arms over police efforts to stop the display of anti-NATO flags days ahead of a summit of the alliance.

"Scandalous and intolerable," says Daniel-Cohn Bendit, co-president of the Greens in the European Parliament and a well known figure in both French and German politics.

"Completely illegal," says Patrick Wachsmann, a law professor at the University of Strasbourg and a specialist in civil liberties.

Even the local authority for the eastern Bas-Rhine region has distanced itself from the police action. In a statement issued late Monday, it denied having issued orders to the police to take down banners displayed from householders’ windows.

The battle of the flags started when police officers started visiting the homes of local citizens who were flying flags bearing a rainbow logo and the slogan "No to Nato" from their windows.

Officers turned up at Christian Grosse’s house at the beginning of last week and told him they had received orders to ask people to take the flags down.

"It was my son who saw them," Grosse told AFP. "They told him ‘Either you take it down, or we take it down.’"

His son did as he was told, said Grosse, "but I put it back up the very next morning," he added.

Grosse, a member of the local communist party, said several other local residents had received similar visits from the police.

Marie-George Buffet, the secretary general of the French communist party, has used Grosse’s experience as a rallying point, appealing to people to hang out the same flag all across France.

The police visits – and the resulting controversy – come against the background of moves to tighten security in the French city ahead of the NATO summit planned for 3 and 4 April.

But Buffet accused the French government of wanting to transform the city into a bunker.

Francois Bayrou, leader of France’s centrist Democrat Movement, has also condemned the police measures as an unjustified attack on freedom of expression.

"It is wrong not to respect peaceful freedom of expression," he said.

"I don’t see what is wrong with reminding people that not everybody favours France being in NATO," he added.

For law professor Wachsmann the measures are "shocking" and all the more surprising because they were not covered by any existing law.

If the authorities had in fact forcibly removed one of the flags in question it would have been a "grossly illegal" and liable to legal redress in the courts, said the academic.

Even the security measures setting up "red zones" during the summit that restricted freedom of movement in parts of the city were not covered by any existing law, he added.

Any Strasbourgeois could take legal action against the measures, which involve local people being issued with badges and being checked as the come and go from the zones, he said.

The city’s mayor, Roland Ries, told AFP earlier this month that the French authorities expected violent protests during the summit.

Security measures put in place for the 3 and 4 April gathering of the alliance’s 26 leaders had gone far beyond what he had imagined, he said.

"I really do think that there is a very real risk of seeing peaceful protests degenerate into violence because of hooligans and anarchists who will come from across Europe," Ries added.

Political leaders will converge on the German town of Baden-Baden to mark the 60th anniversary of the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, before crossing the border for talks in Strasbourg.

Tens of thousands of protesters from around the world are expected at an alternative gathering and some of the organisers of that event have called for the right to hold peaceful protests during the summit.

AFP / Expatica