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World: Evian, Normally Peaceful, Prepares For Potentially Raucous G-8 Summit

The normally quiet French spa town of Evian plays host this weekend to thousands of journalists, demonstrators, and security personnel who are on hand for the annual G-8 summit of leaders of the eight leading industrialized nations. France is taking no chances of anything going wrong -- and thousands of soldiers are in place to protect the participants from anything ranging from a biological attack to broken bottles lobbed by angry anti-globalization protesters. Much of the squabbling, however, may take place behind closed doors, as leaders try to patch up their own personal differences in the wake of the Iraq war.

Paris, 30 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The French spa town of Evian near the border with Switzerland has never seen anything like the preparations for this weekend's meeting of leaders of the G-8 group of eight leading industrialized countries.

The security preparations have been underway for months, as French President Jacques Chirac, U.S. President George W. Bush and their counterparts from Britain, Germany, Italy, Canada, Japan, and Russia come together for wide-ranging talks on foreign policy, aid, and the economy.

Nothing is being left to chance. French security forces have sealed off the area around the town. Fifteen thousand troops patrol the ground, unmanned observation aircraft constantly monitor the slightest of movements, and fighter aircraft and missile batteries are on alert to repel air incursions.

A French security officer, who wished to remain anonymous, told Reuters ahead of the summit, "We have created an operational emergency and civil defense headquarters for the summit. At all times services such as rescue personnel, firemen, and civil security are available. There are also experts in nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. We have all these services at our disposal [and] able to help us if we need their skills."

The security is tight in part because of fears of anti-globalization protests planned to coincide with the summit. No one has forgotten the riots that accompanied the same meeting in the Italian port city of Genoa two years ago.

With Evian closed off, the focus of the protests has shifted to nearby Geneva, just across the border. As many as 1,000 protesters demonstrated in Switzerland today, with tens of thousands expected over the weekend.

"Today, we are going to Geneva for the international gathering, and after the international gathering to prepare for the big protest, we will all go together to a protest organized by 'No Border Network,' in front of the headquarters of the International Migration Organization to ask for free movement [of peoples]," one protester said.

Many of the demonstrators say they have no intention of engaging in violent acts. "This village really filled up yesterday, with several distinct areas. This area right there is the 'green' area, called 'the Dream.' Several groups have got together to put forward an alternative way of life, close to nature, and respecting nature," a protester said.

Host Chirac does not want the summit to be remembered for the wrong reasons. In fact, he would probably be happy if it is not remembered at all. His main aim is to ease France's painful squabble with the United States over the Iraq war. He says it's time to let bygones be bygones.

G-8 summits are almost invariably collegial affairs in which differences are brushed aside in favor of bold statements of intent. Evian, for all the personal tensions still existing among the leaders, is likely to be no exception.

Chirac says the prime task of the summit is to convey a message of confidence in world economic growth. This will be easier said than done because here too there are critical differences between Europe and the United States. The plunging dollar is crippling the competitiveness of European exports and the two sides are still locked in dispute over agricultural subsidies.

The French president says he wants Evian to emphasize the G-8's commitment to development in the Third World. Bush apparently agrees and has already committed $15 billion to the fight against AIDS in Africa.