Attacks cast pall over Christmas in Paris and around the world

French soldiers and police patrol the entrance of the Christmas market in eastern France.
French soldiers and police patrol the entrance of the Christmas market in eastern France.PHOTO: AFP

PARIS (AFP) - 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. 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 to 30 per cent drop in business since the attacks of Nov 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 per cent less Chinese - only 30 per cent because the Chinese are pretty daring," she told France television.

"But for other languages, in Japanese or American, there is a drop of practically 80 per cent."

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

"There is a great resilience in this city," she said recently.

"Of course there are worries and we will never forget the victims, but activity is restarting."

For those who treat Christmas as a religious holiday, the attacks have brought other ominous changes.

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

The government called on congregations "to pay particular attention to abandoned packages or bags", saying Christmas church services "could constitute targets of exceptional symbolic force".

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.

"There will be a lot of people at Christmas, maybe more this year given what we're living through," said Mr Olivier Dumas, spokesman for the Conference of French Bishops.

"The Sundays after the attacks of Nov 13, we saw more people in our churches. People had a need to look inwards, to reflect on life and society."

Around the globe Thursday people were facing an edgy Christmas.

The British and US embassies in China issued a warning about possible threats against "Westerners" in a popular Beijing neighbourhood ahead of the holiday.

Some separatist militants in the mostly-Muslim region of Xinjiang in western China have styled themselves as jihadists, though attacks have not previously targeted foreigners.

In Somalia, religious authorities have cancelled Christmas entirely out of fear that festivities could attract violence.

"We are warning against the celebration of such events which are not relevant to the principles of our religion," said Sheikh Nur Barud Gurhan, of the Supreme Religious Council.

He warned they could provoke the Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab "to carry out attacks".

All of which pales in comparison to the fear of celebrating Christmas in the Syrian town of Sadad, on the front lines with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Only a few families remain in Sadad, once a Syriac Orthodox-majority town in the centre of the country.

"I haven't put up a Christmas tree in my house for the past four years because the situation does not allow us to, and because I can't find a place for joy in my home," said Youssef, a retired 65-year-old man, whose family has fled to a safer village.

Another elderly resident, Mtanyos Mawas, sums up his hopes for the holidays.

"All I want is for this Christmas to pass in peace."