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G8 Evian 2003: Geneva on fire

June 6th, 2023

Our anger is a war cry against the G8 and against misery" chanted anti-G8 demonstrators in Geneva and Lausanne just before the June 1-3, 2003 summit in Evian, where the club of powerful industrialized nations met in the French town against the backdrop of the Iraq war. Violence and damage in Geneva were widespread, leading to a cascade of political reactions.

Already in April 2003, the summit bringing together the leaders of the main industrialized countries was beginning to worry the authorities in French-speaking Switzerland. In Geneva, the question arose as to whether the G8 could go ahead with the mobilized emergency and law enforcement resources: With all the resources we've mobilized, why hold a summit attended by leaders who support the war in Iraq... it's almost indecent" asked André Hediger, the mayor at the time.

A few days before the start of the summit, as the world's powerful were getting ready to arrive at Geneva Airport, Geneva's luxury goods and banking businesses - everything that represents capital and financial power - decked their windows with these seemingly lightweight protections. Posters with the clear title "Illegitimate G8" are popping up all over the newly erected palisades. They call for a rally on Sunday June 1 in front of "L'horloge fleurie".

Yound and organized thugs

On May 31, on the eve of the start of the summit, groups of young, organized, mobile thugs broke and looted, especially stores that didn't have boarded-up storefronts. The Hôtel de Ville and the Hôtel des Finances were targeted by Molotov cocktails. On June 1, the peaceful demonstrators were dismayed by the events of the previous day, but pleased to see the press and interpreters blocked on their way to Evian. Among the personalities visible in the peaceful procession was Antonio Hodgers, the Green member of Geneva's Grand Council, who condemned the previous day's destruction, while making it clear that the groups of delinquents who had looted bottles of alcohol and other valuables had nothing to do with the peaceful, anti-globalization demonstrators.

The historic demonstration begins, but the tension is palpable. Between 50 and 100,000 people turned out, depending on whether the police or the organizers were counting. A group of Zurich autonomists was spotted at the end of the procession, a black block of 3 to 400 people. Further clashes between the demonstrators and the Geneva police followed. Despite the reinforcement of 1,000 German police officers with water cannons, the authorities had trouble getting the demonstrators to listen to their call for calm and respect. In Temps Présent, broadcast a few days after the event, RTS journalists capture the scene of activist Martin Shaw's fall from the Aubonne bridge on the A1 freeway between Geneva and Lausanne. He had fallen after a policeman had cut the rope holding him to the bridge, and was seriously injured.

"The police stepped up their repression"

The police intervened vigorously at the anti-globalization camp in Lausanne. According to several of the activists present, "the police have stepped up their repression". Demonstrators realize that their right to demonstrate is being undermined as they are ordered to leave. On June 2, Geneva cleans up and repairs the previous day's damage. Charles Beer, Geneva's State Councillor, tries to unblock the street, which is closed to demonstrators in several places. Geneva police chief Christian Cudre-Mauroux shows RTS reporters that a demonstrator has been arrested with a bottle of acid. Hence the filtering measures and even the ban on passage.

These incidents had major political and financial repercussions. The career of State Councillor Micheline Spoerri, who was in charge of the police at the time, suffered as a result. These events also prompted the canton of Geneva to adapt its law on demonstrations. These events in downtown Geneva were reminiscent of other demonstrations in the city, such as those against the visit of the Shah of Iran on June 13 and 14, 1972. Activists from the Revolutionary Marxist League and Iranian citizens living in Geneva protested against the growing authoritarianism of Reza Pahlavi's regime. Pascal Praplan recounts these spectacular events in his geneveMonde article, which also includes a bomb defused at the Palais des Nations, gifts sent by the Shah to the Geneva police and rough handling of journalists.

David Glaser

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