|A bus full of tourists being attacked by rioters in Paris|
The demonstrators arrived in downtown Paris just after lunch from four different directions, and although the bulk of the demonstration passed off without major trouble, over 100 people were arrested for public disorder-related offences. But after the demonstrators had dispersed a group of several hundred extremists stayed on and attacked journalists and riot police. Paris looked more like a war zone than a peacetime city (images and videos here.) Sporadic incidents continued here and there in the streets for hours before things finally quietened down. There had been 350 arrests in all and 36 people, almost all of them police, had been injured.
This was not an isolated event. Yesterday's demonstration was only the latest in a series of similar ones this year, all of which have led to various degrees of violence, looting and the destruction of property, and there were similar scenes during the 'celebration' earlier this month by fans of the Paris St-Germain football team to mark their winning campaign in the French league. Rioters attacked shops and people and in one instance the looting of a bus full of Japonese tourists was filmed. It makes chilling viewing.
Another worrying phenomenon in today's Paris is the proliferation of organised crime in the form of gangs of pickpockets and violent thieves who threaten tourists and force them to hand over their money, cameras and other objects of value. They operate all over the city centre, in shops, bars, tourist sites, public transport (the Metro in particular), hotels and elsewhere, and things have become so serious that security personnel at the Louvre went on strike recently to protest the lack of government measures to combat these bands, which even operate within the museum itself. In one well-publicised incident, an aide to Bill Clinton, who was visiting Paris, was robbed of cash whilst using a cash distributor.
Finally, there are regular instances of running battles involving members of rival gangs who come downtown from the suburbs to slug it out. Shopkeepers in Les Halles in particular have witnessed several of these battles and gone on resignedly to clear up their smashed shop fronts afterwards.
No wonder then that alarm bells have started ringing. Police are trying to step up patrols but are hampered by a lack of manpower, and foreign embassies are issuing advice to tourists and warning them to be vigilant. The Chinese embassy went one step further and lodged an official complaint against Parisian authorities, whom they accuse of not doing enough to protect Chinese tourists from aggression.
All of this is also penalising businesses, which is why a representative of up-market retailers recently reminded the authorities of their obligation to protect tourists. "Paris is becoming hell for tourists in terms of personal safety" he said. Another representative said that "[Paris has] a catastrophic image."
Authorities, hotels and businesses, both Parisian and national politicians, and now the press, France is finally waking up to the reality of a capital city which is in danger of being considered by tourists to be a place to avoid, and they are demanding that something be done about it.
They are quite right to do so. After all, Paris is France's window on the world. Most of them consider that if something isn't done to improve the situation soon the result will be a worsening reputation, falling tourist numbers, falling revenue, and yet another dent to French national pride, which has already taken enough hits as it is.
Let's hope that something is done to turn the tide, and quickly.