Beef ban protestors in clash with French police

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Indy Politics

Conservative Euro-MPs took the battle over British beef to the streets of Paris today - clashing with police as they protested against the French import ban.

Conservative Euro-MPs took the battle over British beef to the streets of Paris today - clashing with police as they protested against the French import ban.

Traffic around the Arc de Triomphe was halted while the 11 banner-waving protesters began a march down the Champs Elysees to the British Embassy.

But then a group of armed riot police - the National Guard - descended and blocked the way as perplexed Parisians gawped at the MEPs and their banner slogan: 'Let them eat cake? Let them eat British beef'.

After arguments on the pavement, the MEPs were finally allowed to carry on with their banners furled - but their assistants were detained in a police cordon until a phone call from the British Embassy led to their release.

'It was all totally unnecessary,' said Philip Bushill-Matthews, one of the protesters. 'At first the ordinary police were very helpful as we stood under the Arc de Triomphe with our banner. 'It was after they had helped us get across to the Champs Elysees that the armed police turned up, plus the National Guard in a coach. They simply refused to let us move any further, even though by then our banner was furled up.'

Mr Bushill-Matthews added: 'No-one was manhandled, but before we were allowed to go we asked what would happen if we just broke through and it was made pretty clear that that would not be a good idea.

'I was very surprised by the whole thing, particularly as we were allowed to stand at the Arc de Triomphe beforehand with our banner and crowds of television cameras and were then helped to get across the road to start our walk down the pavement.'

After the clash with police their first port of call was the British embassy, where they spent half an hour with the ambassador to France, Sir Stephen Jay.

He briefed them on the current diplomatic situation in Paris and accepted a a letter which the Conservative MEPs want delivered to French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin on their behalf.

Sir Stephen also came to the rescue of the stranded political assistants on the Champs Elysees. A few well-placed phone calls triggered a request to the armed police to release them from their pavement prison.

The demonstration surprised shoppers on the most famous street in Paris. And in deference to local people, the MEPs' protest slogan was in French as well as English.

Tory agriculture spokesman in the European Parliament Robert Sturdy said: 'Our message was perfectly clear. France's refusal to lift the ban on British beef is illegal.

'Marie Antoinette began the French revolution in 1789 by decreeing 'Let them eat cake'.

'In 1999 the British Conservatives are starting their own revolution against the French disregard for European law by shouting loud and clear to all of Paris from the top of the Arc de Triomphe, 'Let them eat British beef'.

'The French are not protecting their people, they are protecting their markets. I find it very difficult to believe that a country which has been so pro-integration, pro-single market and pro-Common Agriculture Policy only plays by the rules when it suits its own economy.'

He said the group waved their diplomatic passports and insisted they had a meeting at the British Embassy.

Finally they were allowed to proceed - with an armed police escort at front, back and sides.

The leader of Britain's Labour Euro-MPs, Alan Donnelly, described the Tory beef protest in Paris as 'hypocrisy on a grand scale'.

He said: 'Wiliam Hague wants to take Britain out of Europe. He is moving towards the exit door. 'This beef crisis is a vivid illustration of what would happen in Hague's flexible Europe where member states can choose which EU laws they want to obey: the result is chaos.'

Mr Donnelly said 'gesture politics' would not help get the unilateral French blockade lifted, and that Tony Blair's government, working with other member states and the Brussels Commission, would 'get this crisis fixed'.

He added: 'While the Tories are playing in Paris, Labour politicians are involved in serious discussions in Brussels. The Tories, as William Hague would want it, are on the fringes and on their way out of Europe.'

More than 200 angry farmers protesting against the French ban on British beef attempted to storm Poole ferry in Dorset last night. Frustrated in their attempts to talk to French lorry drivers due to arrive on a delayed ferry from Cherbourg, the farmers charged 300 yards towards the port gates. One police officer was slightly injured. No one was arrested.