- The Washington Times - Friday, December 8, 2000

NICE, France European Union leaders drove through clouds of tear gas on their way to a pivotal meeting on the future of their alliance yesterday as riot police fought back hundreds of militants.

The semi-deserted boulevards reverberated with explosions. A fog of tear gas and black smoke clung around the conference center, where several delegations stepped out of their cars coughing and wiping their eyes.

Host President Jacques Chirac, his European celebration ruined by the militants, sneezed with discomfort.

Things went only a little better inside the conference hall, where leaders clashed over a proposed European defense force and questions were raised about a Charter of Fundamental Rights that has been promoted as Europe's answer to the American Bill of Rights.

The formal proclamation of the charter, which declares high-quality health care and housing assistance as fundamental rights, was the formal centerpiece of the day's events.

But David Byrne, the Irish EU commissioner and a former Irish attorney general, told the Irish Examiner newspaper that he did not believe the charter could be incorporated into European law as it is drafted.

Outside in the streets, battles raged on several roads leading to Pont Barla, a large square, lined with shuttered restaurants, bakeries and hairdressers.

On any one front, there were rarely more than a few dozen protesters, matched by an equal number of helmeted police officers. Three police were reported hurt by the end of the morning.

Police had blocked vehicular access to most of the city center, and the riots did not interrupt the summit.

A branch of the Banque Nationale de Paris was set on fire. A few rioters hurled stones at firemen.

When Swedish delegates were deliberately prevented by protesters from walking to the conference center, riot police charged, banging batons on their shields.

The militants included Basque and Corsican nationalists, alongside anarchists who hate capitalist bosses of any nationality, and environmentalists who want to protect nature everywhere.

Graffiti appeared on walls and shop windows in several languages: Todos y todas contro el neoliberalismo (All against neo-liberalism); A mort l'argent, (Death to money); and No justice, no peace.

Many rioters, regardless of affiliation, wore the Palestinian headscarf.

"This is like the intifada," said one, proudly pulling out two stones from the pocket of his pullover as if they were relics of the Holy Land.

While police and demonstrators fought in the street, leaders argued inside the hall after Mr. Chirac insisted that a proposed European defense force be independent of NATO's command structure.

"European defense must naturally be coordinated with the [NATO] alliance," the French president said. "But as for the development and implementation, it must be independent from [Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe]."

The remarks angered British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who had hoped to use the summit to reassure the United States and the British public that the defense force would not amount to a European army.

Britain had helped to draft a statement stressing that the force would act only when NATO did not want to be involved, and that NATO remained the foundation for collective defense.

"I don't know whether it is the way President Chirac sees it, but it is not the way I see it," Mr. Blair said of the French leader's remarks. "We are going to end up with something that NATO supports, Britain supports and America supports and the French can live with."

There also were questions about the new charter, which proclaims rights to "strike action," to "a high level of human health protection," and "to housing assistance." It sets working conditions and appears to mandate full employment privileges for part-time workers.

It also guarantees workers "consultation" rights, giving them decision-making power on management matters along the lines of German work councils. It bans human cloning and restricts deportation to countries such as the United States that apply the death penalty.

It also contains a bizarre clause, Article 52, saying that all rights can be suspended "where necessary in the general interests of the Union."

Mr. Byrne said the charter included issues that could not be described as fundamental rights "by any lawyer who understands the term." He predicted that legal problems were inevitable down the line if the text ends up as law.

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