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Show must go on in Paris despite scars left by terrorist attacks

As thousands of members of the Green and White Army descend on the City of Light this weekend, Henry McDonald finds, among all the security precautions, a new-found resilience to the terrorist threat in the French capital.

Published 10/06/2016

Police on alert in Paris as Northern Ireland fans arrive to cheer on their heroes
Police on alert in Paris as Northern Ireland fans arrive to cheer on their heroes
Northern Ireland's Amy and Callum Lister from Belfast in action during the last home game before heading to the Euros on May 27 2016 in Belfast

When you emerge from the doors of floor seven on top of the Galeries Lafayette, you are met with a breathtaking skyline view of Paris. To your left is the Eiffel Tower, while just to the right of it, peaking out of low cloud, is the Arc De Triomphe in the distance.

Directly in front of you is the gloriously ornate Paris Opera and the rest of the City of Light spread out before your eyes. Up on the rooftop, Parisians and tourists recline in deck-chairs, or prop themselves against walls as they eat lunch while taking in this most romantic of all cityscapes.

Yet, to get up there, any Northern Ireland fans in transit to Nice, or Lyon, over the next few days, or even in Paris for the final game against the Germans, will encounter something older supporters will be very familiar with at the front door of the French capital's most famous department store.

Because, before you enter this cathedral of Gallic and global commerce, with its Kubla Khan-style glass dome, you could be subjected to a body-search.

Visiting Galeries La Fayette earlier this week began with a time-travelling experience that transported this writer back to the 1970s. It was like going once again into shops in Belfast city centre during the darkest years of the Troubles.

Young men dressed in natty grey suits and black ties searched everyone's bag at the Rue De Lafayette entrance, running their electronic scanners over shoppers' bodies and, in this window-shopping browser's case, patting down from shoulder to trouser bottoms in search of anything suspicious after the bleep went off.

It was, in fact, the only real physical sign in central Paris that the city is still officially in a state of emergency following last autumn's Islamic State-inspired attacks on the Stade De France football stadium (where both Northern Ireland and the Republic will play in Euro 2016), the venue for heavy metal rock concerts, a couple of bar-restaurants and a Jewish kosher supermarket.

Eight months on from the atrocities, the management at the Galeries La Fayette are taking no chances in protecting - or at least demonstrating their willingness to minimise the risk - their customers and visitors from further Islamist terror attacks.

So, as thousands of Irish supporters pass through Paris this weekend, they will find a city that is still nervous, but which, over the last few days at least, is starting to demonstrate a sense of resilience in the face of any possible further terrorist outrages during the tournament.

Outside The Cork and Cavan Irish pub, alongside the Saint-Martin canal, Irish-American teenager Jack Lewis was stoical about the dangers of an IS-inspired assault on the European Championships.

The 19-year-old, who has lived in Paris for seven years, said some of the fear engendered by the November atrocities had faded.

"It never crosses my mind now if I am on the Metro or the train that something bad might happen. You just have to get on with living your life as normally as you can," he added.

"What these people (the terrorists) want is for life not to be normal, which is why I think the best response is to keep on living your life."

Sipping a pint of cider outside the pub whose window has a bizarre mural of an octopus on which is dotted mini-footballers flying the flag of every country at Euro 2016, including the Red Hand of Ulster, Lewis said: "Of course, the tournament is a target, with thousands of supporters coming into France this week. But, if something happens, it happens.

"I think the attitude here - and especially of my French friends and neighbours - is that the show must go on. We can't live our lives in fear."

Later, in the red light Pigalle district, Lewis is joined by his friend from one of Paris' international schools, 18-year-old Enndewell Maxwell, who is half-French, half-Chilean. Maxwell has just landed a month-long job serving fast food to Northern Ireland, Republic and supporters from other countries at the largest fanzone of the tournament on the Champs de Mars, just underneath the Eiffel Tower.

"I forgot my French identity card today, but they didn't even check when I went for my training," he said. "The only thing I learnt was that if I saw an unattended bag left down in the food area, I should report it right away, and I was also told that I should move the public far as possible from it. They also told me that everyone working at the fanzone would be searched and frisked each day by security staff during the tournament. And if we objected to the searches, then they would call in the French police because in France the cops have the legal powers to search you whether you like it or not.

"Personally, I don't mind the daily checks when they start as it will help make everybody in the Champs de Mars feel safe.

"I am really looking forward to meeting both sets of Irish fans when they arrive, so this job has been a god-send for me."

Fermanagh-born, long-term resident of Paris John Maguire said he was suspicious over the French security crackdown and worried that politicians would seek to exploit the fears of the public.

However, the communications officer for French television also accepted that police and troops were under tremendous pressure to cope with the hundreds of thousands of fans arriving the country.

"The security forces themselves have admitted to being stretched by the need to be on constant high alert because of the prolonged state of emergency," he said.

"People are taking seriously the French President's warning that the threat of terrorist attacks is real. People's lives are already significantly disrupted by industrial action, particularly in the transport sector. Yet, I think the Euros won't have a significantly positive effect on how they view their daily lives."

The French Interior Ministry has issued, via the police, an early-warning app to inform foreign fans if there are any terrorist incidents in the big cities where the games are being played.

The SAIP (Systeme a'alerts et d'Information des Populations) programme will tell you within 15 minutes if something has happened, as well as containing safety tips and useful information, which can be downloaded into English. However, in the SNCF railway stations and on most of the Metro there has been a token presence of armed police officers roaming the concourses and the platforms.

They may, of course, become more visible, their ranks swelling, as the tournament starts. Yet, the impression you get moving around Paris on the underground is that the French do not want foreign fans to see a city that appears like it is under siege.

Normality, or close to normality, as Irish-American high school student Lewis mused, is probably the deliberate stance of the entire state and people as a reaction to the terrorist disturbances last year.

Even in terms of physical symbols, Euro 2016 itself thus far is understated. There are a few stands and stalls at each of the main rail stations where supporters can pop into for tourist information.

As for the Metro, there are even fewer signs to tell the passing commuter that there is a pan-European football competition involving 26 national teams taking place in their country.

Indeed, inside the Stalingrad Metro station, close to where this writer is staying, the only poster on the wall was a for a "Bucket de Bleus", complete with four French soccer stars, one of whom was Arsenal's Olivier Giroud - a tantalising (but hardly wholesome) special price for a certain food chain's fried chicken 'n' chips.

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