‘We knew it would happen some day’: France’s ‘capital of Christmas’ left to count cost of terror

Tuesday’s mass shooting at Strasbourg’s famed Marché de Noel is likely to leave its mark on a Christmas market that’s older, more popular and a bigger earner than any other in France and on the eastern city as a whole when it is normally thriving.

'We knew it would happen some day': France's 'capital of Christmas' left to count cost of terror
Photos: AFP

“We knew his was going to happen one day,” a Strasbourg resident told French daily Libération. “We knew the city was a target, especially at Christmas. We just weren't expecting it to happen tonight.”

“There's no such thing as zero risk,” mayor Roland Ries told AFP in 2017.

 “This is a first for Strasbourg, it's really a peaceful city,” said medical student Antoine. “It's hard to imagine what comes next, because we've never been through something like this.”

The famed Christmas market has long been a prime target, with French authorities foiling a bomb plot as far back as December 2000, when four men suspected of Al Qaeda links were arrested.

Strasbourg’s reputation for being the French 'Capital of Christmas' is a well-founded one. The city’s Marché de Noel is believed to be the oldest in Europe, the first Christkindelsmärik being held in 1570. 

Last year, it drew two million visitors from France and further afield, more than any other Christmas market in the country. Strasbourg’s most celebrated festival also offers a huge financial boost to the eastern city every year, and there has even talk of it becoming a UNESCO heritage site.

Access to the island formed by the River Ill is tightly controlled via the nearly 20 bridges connecting it to the rest of the city.

For Christmas, the island becomes home to around 300 wooden chalets warming visitors with mulled wine and sausages, under the dazzling lights of a 30-metre (100-foot) fir tree in Kleber Square.

All these sources of pride and profit are now under threat following Tuesday’s gunning down of fifteen Strasbourg Christmas market-goers by a lone assailant, two of whom have died and twelve of whom are injured.

The psychological scars and subsequent fear effect that such ruthless attacks leave on a city’s spirit will no doubt hit attendance hard at this and other marchés de noel across France in the days to come.

So far Strasbourg mayor Roland Ries along with the organizers of Strasbourg’s Christmas Market (which was scheduled to run from November 23 to December 30) have only announced that market stalls be be closed on Wednesday December 12, as well as all other related events being cancelled in the city five kilometres from the German border.

If Christmas 2018 were to be literally cancelled as a result of the attack, vendors, hotel owners and anyone else with financial links to the city’s tourism industry would feel the pinch.

According to 2016 figures published by Alsace’s Regional Tourism Observatory, Strasbourg’s Christmas market costs the city €2 million to organize but pours €250 million back into the local economy every year.

December alone represents 15 percent of Strasbourg hoteliers’ annual turnover, with occupation reaching 80 percent during the busy Christmas period. Such is the demand from home and abroad for accommodation that prices are put up by 30 percent during December, making a one-stay in a three-star hotel more expensive on average than Paris

And while Strasbourg may stand head and heels ahead of the rest of France when it comes to Christmas-themed hype and profits, the historic and cultural region in which it lies – Alsace (what is now known as Grand-Est region) – is an overall Christmas market powerhouse.

Colmar, Nancy, Metz, Sélestat, Mulhouse, Haguenau: all these Alsatian towns and cities a stone’s throw from Strasbourg hold Christmas markets renowned for their warmth and authenticity.

Their local economies also receive a major boost during the festive period, a trend which could be bucked if attendees lose confidence in the region’s Christmas markets as a safe haven for couples and families. 

None of them have announced they will close their marchés on Wednesday following the Tuesday attack on Strasbourg, but extra security forces will be deployed in all Christmas markets across Alsace and France as a whole. 

Strasbourg authorities have previously considered the threat of a terror attack on the millions marketer-goers they receive each year, bumping up the security budget from €250,000 in 2015 to €450,000 in 2016 following several terror attacks in the French capital.

Increased security reinforcements have also been deployed in other Alsatian Christmas markets, even though none can be deemed as big a target for extremists as the French capital of Christmas: Strasbourg. 


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US vice president lays wreaths at site of 2015 Paris terror attacks

US Vice President Kamala Harris and French Prime Minister Jean Castex laid wreaths at a Paris cafe and France's national football stadium Saturday six years since deadly terror attacks that left 130 people dead.

US vice president lays wreaths at site of 2015 Paris terror attacks
US Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband Doug Emhoff lay flowers after ceremonies at Le Carillon bar and Le Petit Cambodge restaurant, at which 130 people were killed during the 2015 Paris terror attacks. Photo: Sarahbeth Maney/POOL/AFP

The attacks by three separate teams of Islamic State group jihadists on the night of November 13, 2015 were the worst in France since World War II.

Gunmen mowed down 129 people in front of cafes and at a concert hall in the capital, while a bus driver was killed after suicide bombers blew themselves up at the gates of the stadium in its suburbs.

Harris, wrapping up a four-day trip to France, placed a bouquet of white flowers in front of a plaque honouring the victims outside a Paris cafe.

Castex attended a minute of silence at the Stade de France football stadium, along with Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, before laying wreaths at the sites of the other attacks inside Paris.

In front of the Bataclan concert hall, survivors and relatives of the victims listened to someone read out the names of each of the 90 people killed during a concert there six years ago.

Public commemorations of the tragedy were called off last year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Last year we weren’t allowed to come and we all found it really tough,” said Bruno Poncet, who made it out alive of the Bataclan.

But he said the start of a trial over the attacks in September meant that those attending the commemoration this year felt more united.

‘Overcome it all’

“We’ve really bonded thanks to the trial,” he said. “During previous commemorations, we’d spot each other from afar without really daring to speak to each other. We were really shy. But standing up in court has really changed everything.”

The marathon trial, the biggest in France’s modern legal history, is expected to last until May 2022.

Twenty defendants are facing sentences of up to life in prison, including the sole attacker who was not gunned down by police, Salah Abdeslam, a French-Moroccan national who was captured in Brussels. Six of the defendants are being tried in absentia.

Poncet said he felt it was crucial that he attend the hearings. “I can’t possibly not. It’s our lives that are being discussed in that room, and it’s important to come to support the others and to try to overcome it all.”

Survivors have taken to the witness stand to recount the horror of the attacks, but also to describe life afterwards.

Several said they had been struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, grappling with survivor’s guilt, or even feeling alienated from the rest of society.

Saturday’s commemorations are to wrap up with a minute of silence at the Stade de France in the evening before the kick-off for a game between France and Kazakhstan.

It was during a football match between France and Germany that three suicide bombers blew themselves up in 2015.

Then-French president Francois Hollande was one of the 80,000 people in the crowd, before he was discreetly whisked away to avoid triggering mass panic.