Authorities are urging Australian tourists jetting off to France to exercise a “high degree of caution” due to “the threat of terrorism”, after travel advice levels were upgraded to level two.
Several popular tourist destinations within France have become battlegrounds for police and protesters as ongoing riots consume the city.
The government of President Emmanuel Macron has been battling five nights of violent protests since 17-year-old Nahel M was shot dead in the Paris suburb of Nanterre on Tuesday by an officer during a traffic check.
The killing of Nahel M – who was of Algerian origin – has revived long standing accusations of institutional racism within the French police, which rights groups say single out minorities during stops.
These groups are now hitting back through intense clashes and looting, with more than 45,000 police and gendarmes – French paramilitary police officers – deployed nationwide to protect the country.
Consequently, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) is warning Australian tourists who are planning on travelling to, or are in the area, to remain vigilant.
DFAT’s smartraveller.gov.au website has escalated its travel advice to “level two: exercise a high degree of caution”, based on France’s national security threat being at a medium level requiring reinforced security.
“Since June 27, riots have occurred across France which have turned violent, leading to the destruction of property including vehicles, shops, police stations and schools,” Smartraveller warns.
“Clashes with police have occurred, resulting in the use of tear gas and arrests. Be particularly vigilant at night and avoid all demonstrations and areas with significant police activity.”
The note continues by reminding tourists curfews have been introduced in some cities, with public transport possibly restricted or cancelled.
“The situation may change at short notice. Monitor the media and official sources for updates,” the latest update concludes.
Under level two travel advice, tourists are advised to “pay close attention” to their personal security and the current health situation.
“At level two, there are more or higher risks than what you would typically find in a large Australian city,” a statement reads on the Smartraveller website.
“We’re not saying ‘don’t go’ to this location. But you should do your research and take extra precautions.”
Tourists are urged to familiarise themselves with the current political and security situation, as well as the area they’re staying in and to ensure their travel insurance complies with any changes made to travel advice.
As for those tourists already in France, they’re encouraged to stay in contact with their airline operator for travel updates, be aware of days of significance – as “terrorists have launched attacks on these occasions“ – and be aware of known flashpoints, including protest areas.
Additionally, they’re asked not to wander into unknown areas, leave an area as soon as they feel a sense of uneasiness, refuse unexpected packages, be cautious of what they post on social media and to take notice of people around them and their behaviour.
DFAT also urged tourists to conceal their valuables as tourists can be an easy target.
“Violent attacks against tourists can occur, especially late at night in tourist areas,” the department warned.
“Robbery and muggings are common on trains to/from Paris airports. Conceal your valuables. Don‘t walk in quiet or poorly lit streets at night.”
Grandmother’s desperate plea to rioters
DFAT’s warning to tourists comes as the grandmother of deceased teenager Nahel M urges protesters to “stop and do not riot”.
Talking to BFM television in a telephone interview, the woman who goes by the name Nadia, said rioters were using her grandson’s death as a “pretext”.
“I tell the people who are rioting this: Do not smash windows, attack schools or buses. Stop! It‘s the mums who are taking the bus, it’s the mums who walk outside,” she said.
Adding she was “tired”, Nadia said: “Nahel, he is dead. My daughter had only one child, and now she is lost, it’s over, my daughter no longer has a life. And as for me, they made me lose my daughter and my grandson.”
The interior ministry said 719 people were arrested overnight, after 1311 more people were arrested between Friday to Saturday – the highest figure since the violent protests began.
Meanwhile, intense clashes were nevertheless reported in several places, including the southern city of Marseille.
The wife of right-wing L’Hay-les-Roses mayor Vincent Jeanbrun was also injured in the riots in the last 24 hours after their family home was rammed by a burning car.
Mr Jeanbrun’s wife and children, aged five and seven, were at home while the mayor himself was at the town hall to deal with the riots. The wife was “badly injured” sustaining a broken leg, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors have opened an attempted murder investigation.
“Last night the horror and disgrace reached a new level,” the mayor said in a statement.
“The situation was much calmer (overall)”, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne told reporters as she visited L‘Hay-les-Roses.
“But an act of the kind we saw this morning here is particularly shocking. We will let no violence get by (unpunished),” she said, urging that the perpetrators be sanctioned with the ”utmost severity”.
Some 7,000 police were deployed in Paris and its suburbs alone, including along the Champs Elysees avenue in the capital – a tourist hotspot – following calls on social media to take the rioting to the heart of the city.
In Marseille, which has seen intense clashes and looting, police dispersed groups of youths Saturday evening at Canebiere, the main avenue running through the centre of the city, AFP journalists said.
Paris police chief Laurent Nunez cautioned on BFM television that despite the calmer evening “no one is declaring victory”.
Fears for the future
The protests present a fresh crisis for President Macron, who had been hoping to press on with the pledges of his second term after seeing off months of protests that erupted in January over raising the retirement age.
The unrest has raised concerns abroad, with France hosting the Rugby World Cup in the autumn and the Paris Olympic Games in the summer of 2024.
He postponed a state visit to Germany scheduled to begin Sunday, in an indication of the gravity of the situation in France.
“We are of course looking at (the riots) with concern, and I very much hope, and I am certainly convinced, that the French president will find ways to ensure that this situation improves quickly,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz told broadcaster ARD.
President Macron headed a crisis meeting Sunday with members of his government, according to the Elysee – the official residence of the President of the French Republic.
In a bid to limit the violence, buses and trams in France have stopped running after 9:00pm (1900 GMT) and the sale of large fireworks banned. Marseille has stopped all urban transport from 6:00pm.
Tour de France cycling race organisers said they were paying close attention to the situation as the race prepares to cross the border into France Monday after two days in the Spanish Basque Country.
President Macron has urged parents to take responsibility for underage rioters, one-third of whom were “young or very young” and Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin has said the average age of those arrested was just 17.
A 38-year-old policeman has been charged with voluntary homicide over Nahel’s death and has been remanded in custody.
“This man must pay, like everyone else. Those who are rioting, who attack the police must also be punished. I believe in justice,” said the grandmother.
– With AFP