Shadow of Seattle hangs over Quebec as city steels itself for trade summit siege

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The heart of old Quebec is disfigured by a 4m-high metal fence. Traders are boarding up their shops, "just as a precaution". Anoraked protesters are roaming the frozen, almost empty streets. And police, alone and in phalanxes, on foot and in cars, are everywhere.

The heart of old Quebec is disfigured by a 4m-high metal fence. Traders are boarding up their shops, "just as a precaution". Anoraked protesters are roaming the frozen, almost empty streets. And police, alone and in phalanxes, on foot and in cars, are everywhere.

Quebec is girding itself for the latest battle in the ongoing war over globalisation. This round, the Summit of the Americas, is joined in earnest today as 34 heads of state arrive. They are expected to throw their weight behind plans for the biggest common market in the world, the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Only Cuba is not invited. Encouraged by the United States and Canada, the summit is likely to approve a formal "democracy" qualification for membership.

The arguments in Quebec will be two-fold: those outside the hall that could turn violent as in Seattle's World Trade Organisation protests 18 months ago, and those inside the hall, which could still slow the march towards free trade.

The shadow of Seattle hangs as heavy over the French Canadian capital as it did over the IMF meetings in Washington a year ago. Canada has intensified border controls: there are dog patrols at airports and usually unmanned crossing points in the woods of Maine are suddenly guarded. Would-be protesters are said to be hiding out in the Maine woods trying to find logging tracks to cross by and a mass border crossing is planned from New York state across the bridge at Cornwall into Ontario to protest at what some activists say are excessive restrictions on entry.

On Wednesday, Canadian police announced with great fanfare the arrest of six people ­ including two army reservists ­ on suspicion of conspiracy to commit violent crimes. Two were arrested in a car on the outskirts of Quebec; four others in Montreal. Police displayed threatening equipment that they said was in the possession of those arrested and said they had been under surveillance since the autumn. The timing of the arrests, just as the security operation moves into top gear, suggests that Canadian authorities are prepared, as their counterparts in Seattle were not, for anything that protest groups might throw at them. The ugly fence in Quebec sends the same message: a ring of steel designed to keep the summiteers safe and the summit on course.

However, the fence ­ already daubed with such trenchant graffiti as "Berlin 1989" and "Wall of Shame" ­ also contradicts the other message that the Canadian summit organisers have tried almost desperately to convey: that protest is a legitimate activity and should be heard. To that end, the old port area of Quebec is outside the fence and community halls and old warehouses there seethe with the agitation of the alternative "People's Summit".

However, elaborate plans by Canada for a public dialogue between foreign ministers and protesters seemed yesterday to have foundered, after protest groups said they preferred a televised debate. Canada's attempts to break down suspicion between the two sides by fostering inclusiveness and "transparency" of proceedings ­ the first session televised live and the draft treaty posted on the internet in advance ­ also seemed to be having limited success. The summiteers will still have two key sessions in private. Their deliberations there will largely determine how far and how fast the American states embrace the ambition of the US to demolish barriers to its trade with Latin America and ­ perhaps not coincidentally ­ make the US, with Canada, rivals with the European Union for the Latin American market. In return, however, the US will be expected to make concessions on agricultural imports and ­ with other, richer countries ­ contribute to something akin to the EU's regional fund to speed development in poorer, smaller countries. With agricultural trade still not unrestricted within the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement, this ­ and the need for development money ­ could make even the best intentions for implementation by 2005 unrealistic.

Much is at stake at Quebec for Canada's Prime Minister, Jean Chretien, who has his country's dignity to uphold against the determination of some protesters to cause chaos and the reluctance of Quebec to host the summit at all. But as much, if not more, is at stake for the George Bush. He has already incurred widespread international disapproval by very publicly renouncing the Kyoto treaty on global warming. Not only is Kyoto dear to Canadian hearts, it is also seen in less developed countries as a token of US willingness to be a global environmental player. In an effort to redress some of the damage from his Kyoto pronouncements, Mr Bush yesterday announced that the US would sign an international treaty banning especially polluting chemicals. Signing is risk-free at home, as most of the substances are already banned in the US, and his announcement drew little response in Quebec yesterday, where the US was still seen as the big bad polluter ­ at least outside the fence.