Between where I stepped off a train from Rotterdam at Gare du Nord and the end of the platform I counted some forty French police officers. Cool, I thought, I must have accidentally stepped into a counter-terrorist operation. But no such luck; there wasnâ€™t anything unusual about the show of force â€“ this was routine. Half a dozen passengers were getting their bags randomly searched, a few others were being questioned. Welcome to Paris 2016, the European capital of terror.
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said today that the terrorist threat throughout the country remains at a â€œmaximalâ€ level. Some 15,000 individuals are being monitored by the police and security services, being suspected of radicalisation. More than 700 French jihadis are fighting with ISIS in Syria and Iraq. â€œEvery day intelligence services, police and gendarmerie thwart attacks and dismantle Iraqi-Syrian networks,â€ says Valls.
Last week a juvenile was arrested on the suspicion of planning a stabbing rampage, and three women were arrested allegedly plotting an attack on Notre Dame; a car with five gas cylinders was found near the cathedral.
I walked around Notre Dame today. It is one of the greatest monuments to Christianity in the Western Europe; its silhouette familiar to anyone with an interest in history or architecture. It is stunningly beautiful inside, as only a grand Gothic cathedral can be. Unlike the train station, there donâ€™t seem to be many policemen around. If the people are worried about the terror threat, theyâ€™re not showing it; the plaza in front of the cathedral is bustling with hundreds of tourists. A long line of people queues up to get inside; their bags inspected on entry. A mass is celebrated in the nave, while dozens, perhaps hundreds, walk around, down the aisles and around the ambulatory behind the choir, quietly snapping pictures on their phones.
One of the three women arrested in connection with the carful of gas cylinders, Sarah H., has a rare distinction of losing not one but two fiancÃ©es to jihad in France. The first one, Larossi Abdalla killed two policemen in Magnaville in June, before being killed himself. The second one, Adel Kermiche, was killed after slashing the throat of a priest at Saint Etienne du Rouvray in July. Families that kill together get killed together; Sarah H. is lucky to be alive, though no doubt many wish she had managed to join her men in hell.
Not surprisingly, considering the recent string of terrorist attack, including high casualty outrages at the Bataclan theatre in Paris and in Nice, tourists are staying away. Visits across France were down by 5.4 percent in the year up to July 2016, and in Paris specifically down 7.5 per cent. This translated into losses of some three-quarters of a billion euro for Paris alone in the first half of this year.
France, and its capital in particular, need our love and support. But instead of #PrayForParis, we should all #SpendForParis. Now is the perfect time to visit the City of Light, not just because tourist operators are cutting prices in order to entice visitors, but also to send the signal to Parisians as well as terrorists that the rest of the world stands with France against barbarity and that jihadis wonâ€™t be allowed to win.
(all photos by Arthur Chrenkoff)