Paris Security Tight for Olympic Torch Relay Amid Protest Threats

About 3,000 French police — on motorcycles, in jogging gear and on skates — mobilized to protect the Olympic torch relay Monday when it departs from the Eiffel Tower and crisscrosses Paris amid threat of protests.

When the torch passed through London a day earlier, police repeatedly scuffled with protesters. One tried to grab the torch, while another tried to snuff out the flame with what appeared to be a fire extinguisher. Thirty-seven people were arrested.

Activists angry about China's human rights record and a recent crackdown on Tibet have been protesting along the torch route since the flame embarked on a 85,000-mile journey from Ancient Olympia in Greece to Beijing for the Aug. 8-24 Olympic Games.

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French President Nicolas Sarkozy has even raised the possibility of signaling his discontent over China's human rights record, suggesting he might boycott the Olympic opening ceremony.

On Monday, just hours before the relay was set to begin in the French capital, Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner reiterated that Sarkozy was "keeping all options open." Kouchner has said France opposes a full boycott of Games.

Beijing Olympic organizing committee spokesman Sun Weide denounced Sunday's protests as "sabotage."

"A few Tibetan separatists attempted to sabotage the torch relay in London, and we strongly denounce their disgusting behavior," said Sun.

Even before the chaos in London, Paris police had conceived an elaborate security plan to keep the torch in a safe "bubble."

French torchbearers will be encircled by several hundred officers, some in riot police vehicles and on motorcycles, others on skates and on foot. Three boats were also to patrol the Seine River, and a helicopter was to fly over Paris, police said.

About 80 athletes will carry the torch over a 17-mile route that starts at the Eiffel Tower, heads down the Champs-Elysees avenue toward City Hall, then crosses over the Seine before ending at the Charlety track and field stadium.

Pro-Tibet activists have threatened demonstrations, saying they would not reveal their exact plans until Monday.

The head of Reporters Without Borders, arrested in Greece last month for protesting during the flame-lighting ceremony there, said the group had altered its initial plans because of the heavy police turnout. Without giving away details, Robert Menard promised protests would nonetheless be "spectacular."

Menard also claimed France had caved in to demands from Beijing for tight security.

"The Chinese have made sure that for a few hours, Paris will look like Tiananmen Square," he said. "I think it's shameful."

Paris's mayor and French torchbearers, meanwhile, plan to show support for human rights during the relay.

Two-time French judo gold medalist David Douillet said torch carriers will wear badges reading "For a better world" — which French athletes hope to be permitted to wear in Beijing as well. Meanwhile, Paris' City Hall was draped with a banner that read "Paris defends human rights around the world."

Stephane Diagana, the 400-meter world champion in 1997 who is now president of France's national athletics league, will be the first to carry the torch. Diagana urged the International Olympic Committee to put more public pressure on China and added that he was glad to see athletes speaking up.

"Athletes need to keep their freedom of expression," he said last week. "Human rights are something that is so universal."

In Beijing Monday, International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge said he was "very concerned" about unrest in Tibet, his strongest comments to date on the political storm surrounding the Games.

"The International Olympic Committee has expressed its serious concern and calls for a rapid peaceful resolution in Tibet," Rogge said. He added that violence protests, "for whatever reason," would not be "compatible with the values of the torch relay or the Olympic Games."

The torch's round-the-world trip is the longest in Olympic history, and it is meant to shine a spotlight on China's economic and political power — though activists have seized upon it as a backdrop for their cause.

The torch relay is expected to face demonstrations in San Francisco, New Delhi and possibly elsewhere on its 21-stop, six-continent tour before arriving in mainland China on May 4.