Parisians shrug off bomb alerts
Many residents see official warnings as camouflaging other political controversies, says Aoife Drew
'PUTAIN!" This choice French curse word was an exclamation I heard loud and clear among the disgruntled crowds of people walking along the Left Bank of the Seine last Tuesday evening, as I made my way home from work. As I got closer to the Eiffel Tower, I realised the whole area below the tower had been cordoned off. What seemed like hundreds of police swarmed around the area. Given that there had already been an evacuation at the Eiffel Tower only two weeks ago, it was not hard to guess what was going on: a bomb alert. Funnily enough, given the circumstances, people were more irritated than scared, annoyed they would have to take a different route home.
It turned out to be a false alert, and the tower was re-opened two hours later. Coming less than 24 hours after another false bomb alert at the Saint-Lazare train station, you would expect people to be really terrorised. Au contraire.
With characteristic insouciance, most Parisians don't believe there is a true threat to their safety at present and are certainly not changing their everyday routine. Many reckon the alerts are just a convenient diversion from Sarkozy's dreadful popularity ratings (currently only 32 per cent of the electorate are said to be happy with his performance).
Indeed, the scares come at a truly turbulent time in French politics -- the country is being crippled by strikes called in response to the government's raising of the retirement age (from 60 to 62 -- not bad when you consider the retirement age in most European countries is 65), and Sarkozy is facing huge criticism for deporting Roma families. "The French people aren't duped," says Socialist Party official and former presidential candidate Segolene Royal. "The fight against terrorism is a serious and discreet effort, incompatible with sudden alert announcements -- made, by chance, as protests surge. There's an element of stagecraft in this."
But Brice Hortefeux, French Minister of the Interior (also a close friend of Sarkozy's), declared last week that terrorism threats to France are "real". On September. 11, France's top domestic-intelligence official, Bernard Squarcini, told the Journal du Dimanche "the threat has never been as great" and "all the lights are flashing red.
"I do not want to worry people, but we have serious indications from our intelligence services that there is an important risk of a bombing," added the General Director of Police, Frederic Pechenard. The threats do seem to be rising, notably since the kidnapping of five French hostages in Niger by the local wing of al-Qaeda on September 16. The kidnapping is believed to be in retaliation to French participation in a July 22 military raid in northern Mali which left six L'Organisation al-Qaeda au Maghreb Islamique (AQIM) militants dead. The raid had the aim of liberating captured French aid worker Michel Germaneau, whom AQIM executed two days later. French counterterrorism experts warn that AQIM is a sophisticated organisation and that it is important not to ignore its threat to bring war to French soil.
Paris is no stranger to terrorism. In 1995, three major bombings were carried out by the Armed Islamic Group (GIA). In July of that year, a bomb exploded in the Saint-Michel train station in central Paris, killing eight people and wounding more than 80. The following month, a bomb at the Arc de Triomphe injured 17 people and further bombings in September and October, all in central locations, injured many more.
So is the current threat real or just camouflaging other very real political problems and scandals plaguing France? Many Parisians point out that the recent alerts at the Eiffel Tower and Gare Saint-Lazare were prompted by phone calls -- Islamist extremists rarely do this because it allows police to evacuate. While authorities cannot afford to be complacent, the false alarms are leading people to take warnings less seriously. Parisians will likely find out the truth in the coming months, hopefully not at a human cost.