Normalcy or safety? France weighs how to celebrate summer amid terror fears.
a shift in thought
After a year of terror attacks around the country, summer event organizers in France have had to decide whether to restrict plans in favor of safety. At least one outdoor event, the 'Cinema en plein air,' has moved inside.
Sara Miller Llana/The Christian Science Monitor
Parisians recline on lawn chairs and pull out baguettes, fresh fruit, and cheese, settling in for one of their most beloved rituals of the summer: the Park Villette’s annual outdoor film festival. Except this year, it’s indoors.
Welcome to the summer of 2016 in France.
After a truck driver killed 85 people as he barreled down a packed promenade in Nice on Bastille Day, the symbolic kickoff of summer holidays in France, many of the season’s events have been canceled – or radically altered. From Nice to Lille, to Paris and little towns sandwiched in-between, sports championships, music festivals, marathons, fireworks displays, and air shows have all been called off. The biggest cancellation so far is the Braderie de Lille, a massive flea market that’s drawn antique lovers to the northern city since the Middle Ages.
Subject to three massive terrorist attacks and scores of smaller ones in the past year and a half, the public is clamoring for more security guarantees. In one poll taken by Ifop at the end of July, 58 percent of French respondents named security and terrorism as their No. 1 concern, with unemployment – long the primary worry – far behind at 17 percent. And yet many wonder whether widespread cancellations send a message of defeat – or even make the French safer given the randomness of terror and the imaginations of terrorists.
Sajjan Gohel, a terrorism expert at the London-based Asia-Pacific Foundation, says the flurry of cancellations might show that France doesn’t have the resources or the capability to stop the many threats it faces. “But the fact that they are canceling an event in a state of emergency, my concern is that [Islamic State] may turn this into a propaganda victory, that they are able to intimidate,” he says.
Which is why many see La Villette’s “outdoors” indoors film festival as the right compromise.
Immediately following the Nice attack, “Cinema en plein air” was canceled too by order of the police. Pierrette Domard, who says she has attended this free festival since its inception a quarter century ago – even sitting through the rain once to see a film’s resolution – was angry.
“During the Euro Championship, they tightened security, they should do the same for all activities,” she says. “We have to show we are not afraid, we have to show we will continue doing the same things in our lives.”
On a recent night she is first in line for a showing of the 2013 Japanese film “Like Father, Like Son.” Instead of staking a spot on the grass, as she usually does, she queues up outside the cast-iron and glass walls of the park’s Grande Halle, a 19th century slaughterhouse, waiting to get frisked. The space fits 1,038 spectators, says Thierry Heno, the coordinator for security for the park, compared to the field outside that can hold up to 22,000. On a sunny day perfect for a picnic, between 8,000 and 15,000 normally come for a film, he notes.
“People have taken it well,” Mr. Heno says. Since the canceled festival resumed on July 30, park staff say it’s been full – or almost full – each night. “It’s not a solution in that it prevents us from doing whatever we want, but it’s a solution given the times.”
Such a solution can’t apply to all. The flea market in Lille, which draws 2 million, was last closed during World War II. For this year, the city planned to up security, reducing its perimeter and setting up roadblocks. But Lille Mayor Martine Aubry, who called the decision to cancel the Braderie “heart wrenching,” said to make it safe would alter it beyond recognition. “To have sharpshooters on roofs at the market, riot police on each street corner, and helicopters and drones flying overhead would not be in the spirit of the market,” she told France24.
A sign of resilience
Dr. Gohel says that in Britain or the US, even though neither has faced the same level of threat in the past year and a half, canceling events would be an unlikelier scenario. Instead they’d rely on a “show of force.”
France has done that too, particularly during the Euro soccer championship in June and July. And many smaller events have also gone on as scheduled. Paris Plage, which sees the Seine turn into a beachfront each summer, has introduced more security measures, including barricades, new bag checks, and patrolling military. But it has been full, complete with the usually annoying perennial fights over “saving” beach chairs or long lines for ice cream providing comfort of sorts. Parc Floral’s outdoor concerts kicked off last Saturday on a spectacularly sunny day and was equally packed.
It’s a sign of resilience – and also a grimmer recognition that threats exist in any number of places, and attacks can happen where least expected. Many French also see this as temporary change in their way of life.
Mr. Heno says by next summer the “Cinema en plein air” intends to be just that – outside.
In the meantime, Parisians are seeing the bright side. The weather in August in Paris is not exactly predictable. Sonia Andreu, a photographer, had on two coats and a fleece scarf on what felt more like a fall evening, and looked forward to the warmth inside.
Outdoors might be more convivial, but it also draws people more interested in the ambience than the film itself. For a film buff like Ms. Domard, who averages a movie a day throughout the year, she says watching indoors relieves her of the urge to say “shhhhhh” to picnicking neighbors.
Adds Ms. Andreu: “The important thing to show is we love film, whether inside or outside, and that we will continue to love our culture, our freedom, and our peace.”