French city Lyon in lockdown mode for Chinese President Xi's visit

LYON (AFP) - Road, tunnel and subway closures; spot checks for residents; maximum security: The French city of Lyon was in lockdown mode Tuesday as Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived on a state visit.

Mr Xi chose to kick off a lavish three-day French trip with a whistle-stop tour of a city which, as a former silk centre, forged links with China from the 16th century that have endured until today.

And while the Chinese leader and his glamorous wife Peng Liyuan were only staying just over 16 hours before travelling up to Paris to sign major deals, authorities had left nothing to chance.

The hotel where the couple was due to stay was cordoned off and heavily guarded by police while adjacent streets were completely closed off.

Residents in some parts of the centre - including those living near the hotel - were ordered to carry ID and proof of their address to get in and out of their homes.

According to local newspaper Le Progres, hundreds of riot police and special forces had been mobilised, some positioned on rooftops to protect the Chinese leader.

"This is going to hurt us, hurt the clients and people working here," said shop employee Lydie Cacciatore, looking on.

A square in front of the city hall, where Mr Xi was to attend a sumptuous dinner, had been cordoned off and police deployed.

It is not the first time that a Chinese president has visited Lyon.

High-level politicians from the Middle Kingdom often make the pilgrimage to France's gastronomic capital thanks to its historical, silk-related links to their country.

In 1900, for instance, Lyon was the first city in Europe where Chinese was taught, and even today, many schools in the region teach Mandarin as a first or second language.

Mr Xi's predecessor Hu Jintao visited in 2001 when he was still vice president. Protesters managed to trick security and blasted a pre-recorded democracy slogan by famed exiled dissident Wei Jingsheng, to Mr Hu's intense displeasure.

President Jiang Zemin's visit in 1999 was disrupted by Mr Wei himself, who had travelled to Lyon to protest against the country's widely panned rights record - a hugely touchy subject for Chinese leaders.

On Tuesday afternoon, around 25 activists protesting against China's rights record and its treatment of the Tibetan minority gathered on a square in the city - but this was unlikely to make waves.

Mr Xi was welcomed by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius at Lyon airport.

On Wednesday morning, the Chinese leader is due to visit a laboratory just outside Lyon belonging to biotechnology firm bioMerieux.

Its founder Alain Merieux, a member of a famous Lyon dynasty, is very well connected in China and has already met Mr Xi.

Just before leaving for Paris, the Chinese president will also visit the Franco-Chinese Institute - which when it opened in Lyon in 1921 became the first Chinese university abroad and trained many promising students who went on to become top officials in their country.

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