Tourism after the attacks: Fighting fear with love in France

France has always held an elegant allure for tourists, but after the last year's attacks on Paris, Nice and Rouen, the country has to work harder to attract visitors, Michelle Gagnon writes.

Fixation with rehabilitating country's image abroad has grown after attacks in Paris, Nice, Rouen

French military patrol near Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris after a series of deadly attacks in November 2015 left authorities scrambling to react. (Yves Herman/Reuters)

For years, forever maybe, France has been desirable. Its powers of attraction were somehow endless and seemingly as effortless as its elegance. But no more. France now has to work at it.

The Paris attacks, the slaughter in Nice, the killing of a priest in Rouen. The country has been assailed repeatedly within the past year — or two years, if you start the roster of horrors earlier with the killings at Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher

All told, the body count is more than 230, an unenviable record unseen in a century here for deaths in such attacks.

The soon-to-be year-old state of emergency has put police and soldiers in the streets and subways, at theatres and cemeteries, at the Eiffel Tower and the Opera. 

Soldiers patrol on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice on July 20, 2016, a week after dozens were killed in a Bastille Day truck attack. (Claude Paris/Associated Press)

Ostensibly, they're there to provide extra security, but on site, they are more often an unsettling reminder of the reverse — of mass shooting, hostage taking and suicide bombing. Of what has happened here and could again. 

A national obsession

The French, of course, carry on as life itself insists, but the attacks have put a dent in France's tourism industry. 

In the first nine months of 2016, various figures show the number of visitors was down seven per cent from last year, a drop that hasn't been seen since 2009 and the economic crisis.

In Île-de-France, the department that includes Paris, that represents a loss of one million tourists in the first half of the year alone.

And since tourism is counted on for 170 billion euros in business annually and 7.5 per cent of the country's GDP, fixing it has become a bit of a national obsession.

People light candles at the Place de la Republique in Paris on Nov. 20, 2015. (Laurent Ciprinani/Associated Press)

On Monday, Libération filled four pages with a special report entitled Tourism's State of Emergency. The day before, the president of  Île-de-France proposed a reboot with English lessons for those in the trade and a renaming of the anxiety-creating state of emergency.

Next week, the Paris mayor's office will submit its own multitiered proposal to city council, this one creating a palatial cuisine complex and an elaborate reception centre at the foot of the Eiffel Tower.

The fixation on rehabilitating France's image as a safe place is so acute that the Oct. 3 assault and robbery of Kim Kardashian was taken as a blow to tourism, too.

"Tourism is going to pay for France's chronic insecurity again. Time to wake up!" tweeted Florent Philipot, vice-president of the National Front.

Nathalie Koscisusko-Morizet, a leadership candidate for the centre-right Républicains party, took her shot over the airwaves.

"You can make all the pricey ads you want about Paris. But they've just been brutally cancelled out by the Kim Kardashian affair."

No fear

The "pricey ad" in question is a 2½-minute video produced by the City of Paris and a handful of private partners. The 300,000-euro charm offensive was launched in late September to promote Paris as "a city that's not afraid."

In it, Paris is cut and spliced to perfection, all famous monuments, fashion models and romantic French kisses. Starting this month, it'll be a fixture in hotels, department stores and on board some Air France flights.

Rather obviously titled "Paris je t'aime," the uber-polished clip was as well received as not. Many Parisians took to social media to complain that it didn't show anything of the Paris people live in.

"We just couldn't identify with it," Maxime Baudin says as he sits with Léo Bigiaoui at Café Marguerite across from City Hall.

Léo Bigiaoui, left, and Maxime Baudin pose in front of Paris City Hall. (Michelle Gagnon/CBC)

Baudin and Bigiaoui are both 25 and neither is originally from Paris. They're filmmakers who became fast friends and occasional collaborators under the name Max & Léo. Already an old couple, they've come to complete each other's sentences.

"Ninety per cent of what's in that video is what you see your first day in Paris," Bigiaoui says. "We thought it was odd because what makes Paris so great is everything else."

A thousand faces

But no mere trolls, they decided to do something about it.

"We went out for lunch the day after the city's video was released, and that's when we decided to make our own," Bigiaoui says. "Then we saw an article saying the city's video was a heap of clichés, that even broke it down into number of shots: the Eiffel Tower appears 17 times."

Baudin jumps in.

"I think there are three fashion shows and five French kisses. We thought, 'OK, there's really an opportunity here.' You'll notice their video has a lot of strong themes: architecture, food, dance. We tried to pick up on those."

Bigiaoui interrupts. "C'mon — we don't have any French kisses," he jokes. They laugh.

So, they took three days and 300 euros and set off on foot to shoot six hours of video. On Oct. 14, they posted "Paris, on t'aime aussi" accompanied by a letter to Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo.

To show their good faith, they signed it: "Kisses, Max & Léo." 

Their love video is younger, grittier, edgier, more street level than soaring drone heights. It, too, went viral, with more than one million hits, including a rather rapid retweet and a "Bravo" from Hidalgo who agreed, indeed, Paris has a 1,000 faces. 

"Politically, it's well-played. She couldn't have done better," says Baudin.

Neither has a bone to pick with the mayor. Quite the contrary and, in fact, they're on their way to meet her deputy in charge of tourism.

"It was pretty cool to get a call from the mayor's office," Bigiaoui says. "The best would be to get a meeting with her. It's interesting the proportions this has taken. You start a project and suddenly you become a spokesperson for something.

A generation's vision

"Some people say we made a video for Parisians, but we think it's a video for young tourists. There are hundreds of thousands of us who want to discover cities through the people who live there and the places they go. The video is our vision of that."

Baudin and Bigiaoui have lots to say about their generation and eventually the conversation turns to last November's attacks.

You can see it in the street.- Léo Bigiaoui

"We felt targeted," says Baudin, "but eventually people pulled together, kind of pushed back and refused to be beaten down."

Bigiaoui is bleaker.

"We talk about it regularly. But the minute you're out at night, on a terrace, in a group, at a concert, there's a little alarm in your head that's always set and ready.

"You can see it in the street, if you're out on a terrace and there's a sudden noise. Everyone turns and stops talking. It's part of our collective consciousness now."


Michelle Gagnon is a producer for CBC News. She covers domestic and international affairs.