I’d already booked my trip to Paris when the attacks happened. Of course I was asked if I was still intending to go (by people who don’t know me very well) and when I said ‘yes’, asked if I was scared (by people who know me even less well). Until people started asking, the idea of cancelling hadn’t even occurred to me.
Having lived in London through two IRA campaigns, lived on the Lebanese border of Israel during the first Intifada and lived in Kinshasa during the build-up to an attempted coup to oust Mobutu, I’m not easily railroaded onto the fear wagon.
There are two kinds of risk in life: foolhardy and calculated. Although Damascus has always been high on my wishlist of places to visit, I’m not planning any trips in the forseeable future. But Paris? Come on, really?
Here are my reasons for why I considered Paris to be the safest and best possible place to visit over the Christmas and New Year period.
- As one of the largest cities in the EU and with a population of nearly two and a quarter million, the statistical chances of my being involved in a terrorist attack were miniscule.
- Paris had already had ‘its’ attacks. If others were to happen they’d be far more likely to be elsewhere.
- Because it was so soon after the attacks security would be really high making it much less likely for further attacks to succeed.
- As so many people were cancelling the city would be much quieter than usual, meaning less queues and possibly reduced prices.
- I don’t want to live a life governed by fear. I don’t want to let extremists (of any persuasion) dictate what I do and don’t do. I don’t want to add to the ‘success’ of their atrocities by adapting my life, particularly when it’s to the detriment of the city affected. The BBC reported that 7% of the French economy and two million jobs are reliant on the tourism industry, so the sharp drop in hotel bookings immediately after the attacks and the knock-on effects on shops, restaurants, taxis and tourist attractions, has a serious impact.
So how did I find things once I was actually in Paris?
The presence of armed soldiers on the streets was unusual for a European city. I don’t think I’ve seen this since Belfast during The Troubles. Even during the IRA campaigns in London I remember only occasionally seeing armed police on the streets and never soldiers.
I felt the soldiers were there more as a public reassurance measure than for any practical reason. Adding ‘friendly’ machine gun fire to any terrorist incident could increase the death toll rather than reduce it. And it would be unlikely to deter a suicide bomber from detonating their bomb, let alone prevent a car bomb from going off.
Many of the posher shops along the Champs Elysees had security guards outside who were carrying out bag searches and waving a security wand over customers before allowing them to enter. Again, I wasn’t sure how much of a preventative measure this was as anyone with a bomb or gun could just as easily started their attack outside the shop as inside.
The November attacks happened inside crowded stadiums and theatres. I can see how security checks outside these places may have prevented the attacks or at least scaled them down. But a shop on a busy street? Particulary a shop with a queue of sitting ducks lining up outside? Would it really make much difference if it happened inside or outside? I think not, but even so, it was still kind of reassuring to see.
As for my non-altruistic reason for visiting Paris at this time – less queues and lower prices – did I find a difference? Well, due to security checks some queues were longer than they previously would have been and the Eiffel Tower still had a queue that it was estimated would take about half a day to get to the front of. At other attractions however, less tourists did make it quicker and easier. As I wasn’t familiar with Parisian prices beforehand, and we’d already booked and paid for our hotel, I don’t actually know if it was any cheaper or not.
What I do know was that I enjoyed my time in Paris, felt completely safe and would happily return (though maybe when I’ve booked the Eiffel Tower well in advance).