Is Paris burning? Recurring violence dogs France’s image
Not to mention the rubbish piling up on the streets of Paris last week after strikers blockaded incineration plants. Or the epic floods that hit the City of Light earlier this month, causing riverside museums to close.
“We had helicopters and hysterical police sirens all day outside our (apartment’s) back window,” said Nancy Anderson, 61, a frequent visitor from the United States staying in the city’s seventh district, which was at the heart of fierce clashes between police and protesters on Tuesday.
It was the worst violence in a wave of anti-government protests which began in March. The most shocking incident saw hooded youths smashing the plate-glass windows of a nearby children’s hospital.
“It’s really sad,” 48-year-old film producer Natalie Dana told AFP. “It’s obvious that the troublemakers are there to do damage, not to demonstrate.”
Just the day before, France was shaken when a police couple was stabbed to death at their home in the first deadly jihadist attack since the November bloodbath in Paris that claimed 130 lives.
And on Saturday, Marseille saw the worst violence at an international football tournament since 1998 — which also occurred in France — with pitched battles between Russia and England fans in the southern city’s old port.
During the clashes, more than 30 people were hurt, including a Briton who was beaten over the head with an iron bar. Ten hooligans were later jailed.
With France in the global spotlight, the serie noire of violence has prompted fears of lasting damage to the image of the world’s premier tourist destination.
“It is catastrophic, in a word,” said Jean-Pierre Mas, head of Entreprises du Voyage, the national trade body for travel agents.
“When you see a hospital being gutted it means it’s dangerous to come to France,” he told AFP, adding that a strike by Air France pilots had “hurt the country’s image considerably.”
Paris already suffered a 13.7 percent drop in tourist arrivals in the first four months of the year, according to the regional tourism office CRT, with Japanese tourism down 50 percent.
CRT chief Francois Navarro said hoteliers are reporting a drop-off in US bookings for June, following a travel advisory from the US embassy in Paris warning that Euro venues are “potential targets” for terror attacks.
“This tourist season is probably the most difficult we have seen in 10 years,” Navarro said. “The numbers aren’t good.”
The Socialist government’s multi-pronged response to the triple threat of violence has been less than reassuring.
As alcohol is seen as a main driver of the football violence, strict measures are in place to curb drinking, especially with Russia and England supporters flocking to neighbouring cities for matches this week.
But if the scene in northern Lille on Wednesday was any indication — with beer flowing since the early morning — the measures are seeing only partial success.
As for the anti-government protests, Hollande has threatened to ban demonstrations altogether, sparking the ire of the left flank of his Socialist Party.
“There’s a much simpler way than banning demos,” said backbencher Benoit Hamon. “That is to reopen negotiations (on hotly contested labour reforms), wanted by three in four French people.”
An unlucky streak
On the terror front, Prime Minister Manuel Valls was little more comforting than the US embassy, saying isolated attacks such as Monday’s were practically inevitable.
“More innocent people will lose their lives. It’s very hard to say this… but unfortunately it is the truth,” he said.
However dire the outlook seems now, Genevieve Joublin, a 66-year-old freelance communications specialist, thinks France’s image will survive what she sees as an unlucky streak.
“The fact that Ramadan and the exhortations of the Islamic State group are happening at the same time as the Euro and the protests against the labour law is sheer coincidence,” she said.
Muriel Penicaud, head of Business France, the agency in charge of promoting France abroad, also took the long view.
“For investors who have not yet invested in France, it’s more of a brake, a psychological brake,” she told AFP. “We need to step up our efforts to inform, explain and put things in perspective.”