People ask me what’s going on in Paris. Is it safe? Internationally, newspapers have reported riots. An attack at the Louvre. A second at Orly. This plays into a narrative and it sells.
But is Paris safe? I can’t guarantee anyplace is safe, but I can talk about our weekend.
Last Saturday, not far from our apartment, I passed men carrying enormous flags: black and white striped and dotted with figures that looked like clubs and spades from a card deck. Streets were barricaded by the police. Beaumarchais between République and the Bastille was clogged with protesters and emergency vehicles; smoke bombs erupted; a group of men waved something they had set on fire from the rooftop of a building. As I walked towards the crowd, I recalled the US Embassy’s advice to Americans, “Stay away from all demonstrations.” In general, I do this but not on that day.
There were small fires smouldering on the road and in trash cans. A gauzy haze hung from the top of six-story buildings. Waiters stepped outside, leaned on door frames, looked on with their finely-honed Parisian-waiter nonchalance, and lit cigarettes. Their apparent disinterest reassured me, so I watched for a while before texting Pat, “Be careful. Something’s going on.”
Then, I cut down a side street to a pedestrian passageway where I stumbled upon a hidden courtyard. I stood there for a while in a tiny garden oasis. When I returned to one of the busier streets in the Marais, it was clogged with cars and buses. More than fear, the air was filled with impatience and the honking of horns.
A few hours later, I was back home when Pat returned. “Wow. Did you see that mess out there?” he asked, “I think I got some great photos. It was awesome.”
It turns out, it was a firemen’s protest. The union served beer and grilled meat. The mood was one of a street festival. After all, there’s nothing like a protest (or a strike) to get the Frenchmen’s juices flowing. A maintenance crew followed, picking up every piece of trash. The police came last, reopening the roads. Those who have lived in Paris for years tell me this was all quite normal.
That was Saturday.
Sunday evening, I saw a line of 20 or more riot trucks at the ready on Oberkampf when I walked to the boulangerie for a baguette. The air was acrid with a whiff of tear gas; people held handkerchiefs over their noses. With no real plans, I decided to stay in for the night. The next morning, I passed four or five smashed ATMs but saw no other damage. Calm had returned, but clearly overnight, something was amiss.
Later, I read it was a protest-cum-riot because of a young man, Theo, who has alleged a policeman raped him in early February. The minority suburbs north of Paris assert the police are discriminatory. Protests occasionally push into the city. I’m ill-informed and hence can make no judgements; for now, it is what it is.
With this as a description of our weekend, let me return to the question, ‘Is Paris safe?’
I still can’t answer that, but keep in mind, France makes more money from tourism than any country in the world. The center of that financial boom is Paris. A heavily armed police force is evident in most tourist (and non tourist) areas as the French government does everything that it can to assure order.
But nothing in life is guaranteed.
In lieu of an answer, let me tell one more story. A few years ago, Pat and I went to the Amalfi coast. In Rafaela, one of the most charming villages in the region, a cat ran past me with a mouse clasped in his mouth. Pat had gone ahead to take a photo, and when he returned to find me, I was collapsed on the steps, crying. At first, he was alarmed, until I managed to say, “mouse.” Aware of my single, albeit extreme, phobia, he sat next to me and rubbed my back, “It’s OK. He’s gone.”
He did not say, “Julie, don’t be stupid, it’s just a mouse.”
The bottom line, I’m not here to mock your fears. (And to anyone who thinks a mouse fear is foolish, I submit to you the Bubonic Plague.)
I can only describe what I’ve seen and let you decide your best options. If these sorts of protests worry you, stay in the 7th or on Île Saint-Louis or up Rue Saint Jacques near the Sorbonne (or in Le Marias, near the Louvre, in the 6th). Odds are, in these areas, you will feel safe.
To the rest of you, send me an email. I live in a great neighborhood, and I’d love to have a coffee. (And yes, I feel perfectly safe.)