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SECURITY

Christmas: Security tight at churches in France

It was a subdued Christmas Eve in Paris on Thursday, with tourist numbers down, security bolstered at shops and churches, and locals still on edge after last month's jihadist attacks.

Christmas: Security tight at churches in France

Heavily armed soldiers patrolled outside the iconic Galeries Lafayette and Printemps department stores in the city centre, still doing a brisk last-minute Christmas trade but notably less crowded than usual.

“It's a lot quieter,” said taxi driver Belkassem. “I feel bad for the hotels and restaurants because there are a lot fewer tourists in town this year and this is a crucial time of year for them.”

The famous “bateaux-mouches” boats that carry millions of tourists each year along the Seine have reported a 15-30 percent drop in business since the attacks of November 13, which left 130 dead and hundreds injured.

It is not only France that is feeling the tension this festive season.

Christians around the world are bracing for potential attacks at a symbolic time of year — even in China where the US and British embassies warned of possible violence against Westerners in Beijing.

But Paris — the world's most-visited city — has naturally taken the worst blow in the wake of last month's attacks, with flight reservations down nearly a third compared with a year earlier.

Tourist guide Cecile Reverdy, who translates mostly for Chinese visitors, described a massive fall in business from some countries.

“There are around 30 percent less Chinese — only 30 percent because the Chinese are pretty daring,” she told French television.

“But for other languages, in Japanese or American, there is a drop of practically 80 percent.”

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has sought to reassure visitors and put a brave face on the economic damage.

“Of course there are worries and we will never forget the victims, but activity is restarting,” she said recently.

Heightened church security

The government has warned that Christmas church services “could constitute targets of exceptional symbolic force”.

Unprecedented security checks have been put in place at many of France's 50,000 churches, with bags checked and visitors asked to open their coats to check for guns or explosive vests.

At Strasbourg cathedral in eastern France, a military contingent was set to guard the Christmas midnight mass, where attendance will be strictly limited and the doors locked once the service starts.

France only narrowly escaped a church attack earlier this year, when a 24-year-old Algerian, Sid Ahmed Ghlam, accidentally shot himself in the leg.

Police discovered an arsenal of weapons, tactical gear and jihadist documents in Ghlam's car and student flat, as well as detailed plans to attack churches in the Paris suburb of Villejuif.

But the atmosphere of fear could nonetheless boost attendance.

“The Sundays after the attacks of November 13, we saw more people in our churches. People had a need to look inwards, to reflect on life and society,” said Olivier Ribadeau Dumas, spokesman for the Conference of French Bishops.
 

POLICE

Amnesty condemns ‘arbitrary’ detentions during protest in Paris

A slate of detentions carried out on December 12 during a Paris protest by tens of thousands of people against France's controversial security bill were "arbitrary", Amnesty International France said on Monday.

Amnesty condemns 'arbitrary' detentions during protest in Paris
Photo: AFP

Out of 142 people who were arrested, including 124 who were taken into custody, “nearly 80 percent faced no charges in the end”, a study by the French branch of the rights watchdog concluded.

A similar proportion of detainees to charges laid was seen in the “yellow vest” movement that peaked in late 2018 and early 2019, according to Paris prosecutor Remy Heitz.

AIF, which joined an umbrella group opposed to the security bill, said it had “legitimate concerns over the possibility that there were arbitrary arrests and other violations of human rights”.

The legislation, since scrapped, would have restricted publication with so-called malicious intent of photos of on-duty police officers, a move condemned as a curb on press freedom.

AIF's Anne-Sophie Simpere, the report's author, told AFP the December 12th protest march in central Paris did not see “notable violence”, adding: “Nothing seems to justify what happened in terms of arrests or charges.”

The report focused on police questioning, medical certificates and judicial documents in 35 cases of people who were held but not charged. Two were held for nearly five hours, while the other 33 were held overnight.

A heavy police contingent preceded the marchers and flanked them on both sides, preventing any of them from leaving the protest, AFP journalists reported at the time.

On the basis of witness testimony and video footage, Amnesty said arrests were not preceded by “audible warnings” and at moments when no “significant disorder” was noted in the march.

Alexis Baudelin, a lawyer who was taken into custody, told AFP: “I was surprised by the strategy… At each intersection, the security forces charged on non-violent demonstrators without reason or warning.”

The offensive tactic was aimed at preventing the formation of “Black Bloc” anarchist groups after two consecutive weekends of violent demos in Paris, the police said later.

Amnesty also pointed to “detentions based on vague laws”, notably one against “taking part in a group with the aim of planning violence”, cited in 25 of the cases studied.

In only two of the cases studied had the detainees been carrying objects that could justify suspicions of violent intent.

“It's a catch-all offence,” Simpere said. “You punish an act before it is committed.”

Such lack of precision can “unduly infringe on human rights”, the report said.

Lara Bellini, whose 16-year-old son was held for 20 hours before being released without charge, told AFP: “They (the police) told me he belonged to a malicious band. It was incomprehensible… My son is an activist, but he is in no way a violent person.”

In five of the cases, police used a March 2019 law to slap a ban on appearing in Paris for up to six months.

The ban amounts to “punishment without trial” without even the possibility of appeal, Amnesty said, calling on parliament to scrap the legislation.

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