Published in The Toronto Star, October, 2010.
PARIS—Despite sober warnings advising Canadian and U.S. travellers to be vigilant against potential terror threats in Europe, the only visible difference at the French capital’s most popular all-night cultural event were armed soldiers patrolling Parisian landmarks.
On Sunday, the Foreign Affairs Department in Ottawa said it was closely monitoring the security situation in Europe.
Its announcement came hours after Washington warned American travellers to be “aware of their surroundings” after several intelligence agencies warned last week of potential terrorist threats in Europe.
But in Paris more than 1.5 million locals and tourists — a record turnout — swarmed the streets to take in the contemporary arts festival, Nuit Blanche
Nightfall and unseasonably warm weather brought out Parisians and expats, who blithely ignored warnings so they could participate in an event that each year turns the city into one giant art installation. Cafes and outdoor patios were bursting with revellers like Isolde Legare, 30, of Montreal, who was not paying much attention to security alerts.
“I’m not afraid of terrorist threats at all,” said the communications consultant. “I wasn’t afraid at any point in the night.”
Teams of soldiers and policemen stood guard in subway stations across the city and outside landmarks like Notre Dame Cathedral, which was open all night.
Fellow Montrealer Luiza Staniec, 31, admitted to being more conscious of her surroundings following warnings issued last week that authorities had thwarted a credible terrorist plot to target major European cities.
Staniec, who has been living in Paris for three years, said she keeps an eye out for “shady” people whenever she boards the train.
“I hold my breath between stops because if anything happens, it will happen then,” she said.
She looks out for baggy trench coats and layered clothing, she said, and has even walked out of a station because of a “creepy feeling.”
“I just feel like if someone’s carrying an explosive device, it will be in between layers or in a trench coat.”
Photographer Yonathan Kellerman, meanwhile, works near the Eiffel Tower, which has been evacuated twice last month due to bomb scares and said there’s been a noticeable amount of beefed up security teams in the metro station as well as significant delays daily on the subway line.
And while Kellerman, 31, said he doesn’t believe in a “campaign of fear,” the Montreal native echoed the sentiment of many media pundits in France, who point out that this country has yet to be struck by a terrorist attack despite recent developments that make it particularly vulnerable to militant Islamic groups like Al Qaeda.
On Sunday, the British government also raised the threat of terrorism from general to high for Britons in France and Germany, while the threat level in Britain remains at severe, which means an attack is “highly likely.”
But Canadian expat Julie Bettiol, 36, who works in London, said she intends to continue living life as usual, saying the alerts won’t deter her from her usual routines.
“I’m not going to be afraid of working and living my life.”