'Tel Aviv beach' attracts police and protests in Paris
A Paris beach event celebrating Tel Aviv attracted a handful of visitors but a huge number of journalists, riot police and security guards on Thursday, as well as a much larger "Gaza Beach" protest.
Bemused locals who headed down to "Tel Aviv Sur Seine" had to manoeuvre through bag checks, security pat-downs and metal detectors to reach the small stretch of sand on the banks of the Seine.
Paris converts a long stretch of its riverbank into a makeshift beach known as "Paris Plages" every summer, and has this year named certain days after resorts around the world. Thursday's event consisted of little more than a few people playing bat and ball in front of a picture of Tel Aviv, but it has been enough to excite a major media brouhaha after objections from anti-Israel protesters.
"There are 50 visitors for 500 journalists. I feel like I'm on the red carpet at Cannes," said one onlooker. The Tel Aviv section of the beach, not far from Notre Dame cathedral, was only around 200 metres (yards) long and guarded by a phalanx of riot police on either end.
"Coming today is an act of solidarity with the Jewish people," said Cecilia, an Italian stretched out on a beach chair, adding that she was "a little afraid that this degenerates". On the other side of the police cordon, a large number of pro-Palestinian protesters began arriving around midday to set up their rival "Gaza Beach". Waving Palestinian flags, chanting slogans and handing out flyers, the activists were keen to present the issue as more than just a media storm in a teacup.
"The mayor of Paris wants to make Tel Aviv a town like all the others, when in fact it's the capital of a colonialist state that bombards civilian populations," said Serge Bonal, of EuroPalestine, one of around a dozen organisations taking part in the demonstration. Opposition to Israeli politics runs deep among left-wing parties in France, who sparked the controversy earlier this week, saying "Tel Aviv Sur Seine" amounted to a PR exercise for the Israeli state. City authorities resisted pressure to scrap the event and Prime Minister Manuel Valls voiced his "full support" for the initiative.
"We wanted a festive atmosphere with fun, free shows, concerts, food trucks and the like," deputy mayor of Paris, Bruno Julliard, told French radio. "In fact, there will be a significant police presence, so it will maybe be a bit less festive than we expected." He stressed a distinction had to be drawn between "the city of Tel Aviv, its citizens, its progressive mayor" and "the Netanyahu government policy that we condemn", referring to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
France is home to Europe's largest Jewish community and the largest number of Muslims on the continent although its secular laws mean that no precise figures are available. Tensions between the two communities burst into the open last year during Israel's offensive in Gaza, especially in the working-class Paris areas of Barbes and Sarcelles. A banned pro-Palestinian demonstration last July turned into a running battle between rival protesters and the police.