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Letter From France

Je suis Charlie on a French flag colors (Courtesy image for education only)

Je suis Charlie on a French flag colors (Courtesy image for education only)

By John J. Metzler - PARIS — A year ago France was on edge. Islamic Jihadi terrorists had killed 86 people with a truck ramming incident at a Bastille Day celebration in Nice. Shortly thereafter a elderly priest was murdered as he said Mass.

These attacks following a spate of earlier shootings in Paris killing over 130 which put the country on edge. The tension and expectation of impending attacks enveloped France like the hot and humid summer air.

A year later France feels calmer. Camouflage-clad soldiers still patrol in the airport and train terminals and on some boulevards but there far less tension and nervousness. Both the Parisians and throngs of foreign tourists feel far more secure in Cafes and the crowded streets.

Life has returned to normal in Paris, but now it's the Asians who are the big-spenders.

Life has returned to normal in Paris, but now it’s the Asians who are the big-spenders.

The good news is that the French security services seem to have broken or at least neutralized many of the terrorist networks which have often been linked to the radicalized foreign fighters in Syria.

Most of the “home grown” militants were French born and coming from rundown suburban towns where a toxic mix of petty crime, drugs, and radicalized mosques have served as a breeding ground for radicals. This is not an entirely new phenomenon but has been supercharged by the “cause” and the war in Syria.

Intelligence estimates that 25,000 foreign fighters are in Syria. West European militants be they from France, Belgium or Germany have become both radicalized and more importantly have learned deadly military skills while fighting in the Middle East.

Equally the political climate has changed. The drawn out Presidential campaign contest ended in May with the improbable victory of Emmanuel Macron, a young, dynamic and totally different figure from the staid French political class.

Macron represents far more of a populist movement than a traditionally rigid right/left political ideology. Still just months after his landslide election victory, Macron’s poll popularity has fallen below 40 percent.

The formerly ruling Socialists were trounced by the electorate not so much over security issues but the sluggish economy. The French economy is expected to grow only 1.5 percent in 2017 but is still saddled by a high unemployment rate of 9.6 percent, more double than the U.S. joblessness.

Paris has been selected as the site of the 2024 Summer Olympics. Significantly the Olympics present an extraordinary plus for Paris and naturally the image of France. Interestingly the Games will coincide with the centenary of the 1924 Paris Olympics. Yet the majority of Parisians are not in favor of the sporting spectacular; they fear cost overruns, widening traffic gridlock, and making themselves a terrorist target.

And what of the throngs of tourists now visiting France?

Americans are everywhere but are no longer the “big spenders” as back in the 1950’s and 60’s. The Japanese tourists of the 1970’s and 80’s still visit as do large groups of central Europeans from Poland and the Czech Republic.

Without question the new tourist wave in terms of numbers and spending comes from South Korea and Mainland China.

Even the quickest visit to the iconic Parisian department stores shows many sales assistants and product displays are geared to high end Chinese and often Russian shoppers as well. The French de luxe industries are increasingly dependent on East Asian consumers. Yet here too in the larger stores bags are checked for security concerns.

President Macron will be phasing out the emergency imposed after the bloody 2015 attacks. Operation Sentinelle, the domestic deployment of the Army inside the country for security details, represents the military’s largest operation anywhere.

Nonetheless the terrorist threat has hardly passed. As Islamic State is being defeated in Iraq and Syria by a U.S. backed military coalition, the shattered remnants of the foreign fighters may drift back into Western Europe posing a clear and present danger to states from where they came.

Vigilance remains prudent.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014).

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