Special report: No stopping the party in Paris

It is about 11am on Sunday but at Notre Dame Cathedral, one of Paris' most iconic structures, a line of more than 50 people has formed outside the church entrance.

The Seine flanking it is still swollen, but at least the rubbish that had piled up after garbage workers went on strike before the Euro 2016 football tournament is gone.

What can be seen in the capital instead are the blues and greens of the French police and soldiers, many toting assault rifles, standing guard at street corners and key tourist sites or patrolling metro stations and the airport.

The city is one of stark contrasts - the festive, rowdy football fans draped in the colours of their country, watched by no-nonsense, stoic law enforcers; their songs and merry-making periodically drowned out by wailing sirens of passing ambulances or police cars.

Many had feared that France, which seemed to have had a run of bad luck, would be stretched beyond its limits when it opened its doors to 1.5 million tourists for the month-long Euro 2016.

  • France besieged

  • JAN 7, 2015 

    Brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi attack the office of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris, killing 11 people and injuring 11 others in the building. They also kill a police officer outside the building. Terror group Al-Qaeda's Yemen branch claims responsibility for the attack. Subsequent related attacks in the area kill five and wound 11. 

    NOV 13, 2015 

    Multiple coordinated attacks are launched in several locations in Paris, killing 130 people and injuring 368 others. The worst-hit site is the Bataclan concert hall, where 89 people die. The Stade de France stadium is also hit, as are several eateries and bars. 

    MARCH 31, 2016 

    Tens of thousands take to the streets across France opposing new labour laws that unions say are pro-business. Subsequent strikes have disrupted air and rail transport, oil refineries and nuclear power stations, as well as refuse collection. Violence breaks out. 


    Severe floods in France claim four lives, with thousands evacuated from their homes and damage expected at €2 billion (S$3 billion). 

    JUNE 11, 2016 

    Football fans of Russia and England clash before and after their Euro 2016 match in Marseille. Two English fans end up in a coma after being attacked with hammers by Russian hooligans. 

    JUNE 13, 2016 

    An extremist stabs and kills a police officer and his wife at their home in Magnanville in north-central France. Militant group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has claimed responsibility for the attack.

  • Tan Dawn Wei

Its fatigued security forces, already embattled by at least six terror attacks since last year, plus months of labour protests and migrant camp duty, were primed to deal with possibly more during this season.

As parliamentarians voted to extend the country's state of emergency - declared after the Nov 13 Paris terror attacks that killed 130 people last year - until the end of July, the authorities beefed up its law enforcement pool by roping in a record 90,000 police officers, soldiers and private security guards for the tournament.

But ill-timed floods and labour protests put a greater toll on the country's resources as it struggled to get itself ready for the world.

The Seine burst its banks in the worst flooding in Paris in 35 years, while the country faced fuel shortages, a crippled public transport network and uncollected rubbish after air, rail and garbage workers went on strike.

Despite all that, the French seem to be coping well. Wait staff in bars and cafes are surprisingly good-natured and relaxed, debunking the snooty service myth that has come to characterise them.

"We've been very busy and working harder during this time, but we need the tourists," said a hotel employee matter-of-factly.

Euro 2016 is important to France in many ways, not least of which is the economic benefit it will bring: €1.26 billion (S$2.4 billion) in revenues, 20,000 jobs created, and nearly 100,000 people employed.

Tourism in France, the world's most popular destination with 83 million visitors a year, was hit hard after the November terror attacks.The country has spared no effort in making sure its visitors are safe. Security is tight almost everywhere.

A mountain of discarded umbrellas lies next to a line of fans being patted down before being allowed to enter the biggest fan zone near the Eiffel Tower. Bags are scanned by security guards stationed at mall entrances. Armed police keep spectators in check outside stadiums while closing an eye to scalpers hawking €200 tickets.

The government spent nearly €2 million setting up CCTV surveillance cameras in fan zones, and months carrying out drills in various cities.

This investment has paid off, giving confidence to tourists like Mr Damien Wright, a 27-year-old teacher from Newcastle in Australia, who was standing outside the Parc des Princes stadium on Saturday night holding up an "I need tickets" sign.

"As you can see here, there's a lot of police presence. We feel quite safe," he said.

Singaporeans Jerlyn Lee, 21, Bryan Goh, 22, Mark Weng, 22, and Felicia Chua, 21, were also undeterred.

"When news broke about the fights among the football hooligans, we got a bit worried," said Mr Goh, a geography undergraduate at King's College London. "But we had already made travel plans."

The French themselves seem determined to lead their lives normally. At Le Petit Cambodge and Le Carillon, where a gunman shot and killed 15 patrons, trendy Parisians pack the sidewalks. There is no hint of the blood shed on that street just seven months ago.

Activist Manon Piazza, 22, of the Nuit Debout movement, which has occupied Paris' Republic Square since March 31 this year to protest against the labour reforms, said the authorities have been heavy-handed at times.

"They would come here and just throw people out when there were no violent protests," said the undergraduate. She does not think protesters like her are adding to the country's problems.

"We're just exercising our right to come together in specific places. But I do think Paris is one of the safest places to live in now because the authorities are so prevalent."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 21, 2016, with the headline 'No stopping the PARTY IN PARIS'. Print Edition | Subscribe