The impact of terror prevention on daily life in Paris : an insider view.

Some of our guests have been asking me for my insider view on how the recent travel warnings regarding Europe actually translate into daily life in Paris.

It’s a good question, one that I’m going to share with you.

As you may be aware, for the last couple of weeks American authorities have been asking citizens to be “vigilant” in Europe, after picking up hints of terrorist plotting. Indeed, European authorities have stated their approval of American warnings, saying that they too are being vigilant and increasing security presence in London, Paris, Berlin and elsewhere.

The problem with the US State Department’s warning is that it is too vague to be of much value.

– Where is the threat? “Europe”.

– What is the target? “Subways, railways, aircraft, ships or any tourist infrastructure”.

– And what should Americans in Europe do? “Be aware of their surroundings” and “adopt appropriate safety measures to protect themselves when traveling”, advised the State Department.

A New York Times article explores the concern that these warnings are too non-specific to be actionable or of any practical use, communicating little more than the established and regrettable fact that the world can be a dangerous place.

So, in essence we are being asked to stay alert and avoid crowded places (public transport, airports, tourist sights) in the entire continent of Europe because of the threat of terror attacks.

Okay. I see.

Thing is, that’s what most Parisians have been doing anyway ever since 1995…

In 1995, Paris was the target of a number of terrorist bombings, focused on the Metro. There were 7 such distinct incidents that year, which killed a total of 8 (eight) people.

In the wake of these bombings, the French anti-terrorist plan, named “Vigipirate” was profoundly revised to prevent such events.

So what are the visible and practical consequences to this heightened state of security?

First of all, the rather stylish brushed metal public trash bins that served until 1995 were replaced by transparent green bags hanging down from circular metal rings.

Ostensibly, the idea is to see what’s in them (in case it’s a bomb).

If you ask me, I reckon they just look like big green condoms.

But hey, safety first.

It should also be noted that when Paris is on the highest alert setting, like in 1995, all the public trash bags are removed and there is nowhere at all to put trash (I guess you have to walk around with your own plastic bag until you get home). So, as long as the ‘green condoms’ are out there, it’s a sign that we are NOT on maximum alert.

The second consequence is that the luggage lockers at the railway stations were closed off (again, just in case a bomb was concealed there). This might have been a bit of a hassle for some of our clients (those with a late flight, wanting to kill a few hours in Paris without lugging around their belongings), so we offer for guests to drop off their bags at the office if they want to.

The third consequence is that Police forces are augmented with armed forces at key high-profile locations, increasing visibility. At first, back in 1995, it seemed novel, incongruous and dramatic to spot the odd camouflaged machine-gun wielding soldier in a metro station (not sure how effective green patchwork camouflage is in central Paris, but I guess the idea is to be high profile). Now, 15 years later, we don’t really notice them any more.

The fourth consequence is that since 1995, unattended packages have become “bomb alerts”, just like the one last week at the Eiffel Tower, whereby the area is promptly evacuated while a specialized squad comes in. While these alerts are not a daily occurrence, I’d say that as a regular user of the Metro system, I am mildly inconvenienced about once a month by a “bomb alert”.

These are very much standard security measures and are nothing new.

I can barely remember what it was like in the Metro before 1995, but I have grown used to the “Vigipirate” reminders on stickers, on the monitors, and in standard recorded announcements ever since. And every once in awhile the police surround Notre Dame or the Eiffel Tower with yellow tape and make everyone stand back while a bomb threat is investigated. These have never made the news.

What I’m trying to say is that nothing has really changed in Paris.

Although they are nothing new, I see these security measures as a positive and welcome precaution in preventing a repeat of the 1995 bombings.

Not that there isn’t a threat. Paris has been on Red Alert, the 2nd highest of 4 settings (yellow, orange, red, scarlet) ever since the 2005 London bombing.

I guess we live in troubled times.

Some of you might have been surprised to learn the relatively low death toll of the 1995 bombings: 8 deaths in no less than 7 distinct bombings.

This is perhaps not as surprising as might first appear however…

Indeed, the principle and effectiveness of terrorism resides not so much in killing, but more in causing disruption on a MUCH larger scale.

How does this work?

The answer, based on a well-documented shortcoming of the human brain, is nothing less than fascinating.

Maia Szalavitz, senior partner of STATS (STatistical Assessment Service), put it very well:

“Because fear strengthens memory, catastrophes such as earthquakes, plane crashes, and terrorist incidents completely capture our attention. As a result, we overestimate the odds of dreadful but infrequent events and underestimate how risky ordinary events are. The drama and excitement of improbable events make them appear to be more common.”

This human error of rationality is know in psychology as the “availability error” because our assessment of likelihood can be grossly biased by information that is highly reported and available to us (like the footage of the 9/11 attacks) compared to information that is less available to us (like the average automobile accident).

The fact is: our brains are terrible at assessing modern risks.

Take 9/11 as a case in point:

In the wake of  9/11, some 1.4 million people changed their vacation travel plans to avoid flying. The vast majority chose to drive instead. But driving is far more dangerous than flying… even when there are terrorist strikes, so much so that and the decision to switch caused over 1,000 additional auto fatalities, according to two independent studies comparing traffic patterns in late 2001 to those the year before, one study by a Cornell research group and the the other study by the University of Michigan.

In other words, 1,000 people who chose to drive wouldn’t have died had they flown instead.

Such is the tragedy of the availability error.

According to Cass R. Sunstein (2003)“When strong emotions are involved, people tend to focus on the badness of the outcome, rather than on the probability that the outcome will occur. The resulting “probability neglect” helps to explain excessive reactions to low-probability risks of catastrophe. Terrorists show a working knowledge of probability neglect, producing public fear that might greatly exceed the discounted harm. As a result of probability neglect, people often are far more concerned about the risks of terrorism than about statistically larger risks that they confront in ordinary life.”

The conclusion would seem to be this:

Stay alert of your surroundings, but don’t let terror threats hamper your travel plans or interrupt your daily life.

Il faut vivre.

Alex Wagner
Founder & CEO

PS: For the sake of debate, I would welcome your comments on this post.

14 Comments Add yours

  1. We returned from Paris 3-days ago and were there during the period that the US State Department issued their increased ALERT. We have been to Paris eight times in the last 10 years and were in France in October 2001 following 911. We have used the metro, the SNCF train and the TGV all with out incident or fear. In fact on one of our visits several years ago a student had inadvertently left behind a backpack in the railway station (Gare Lyon) and we had an opportunity to observed first hand how the authorities handled the situation without panic or incident and eliminated the possible threat.

    Paris is of course a large city and has all of the potentials of any large city for all sorts of things, so the term “vigilant” is always appropriate as in any urban area. It is the responsibility of government, and in particular the US Government to monitor and report on potential terrorist activity and/or threats, especially since 911 was an attack on US soil and changed life forever for most americans.

    Our recommendations are; always be alert, aways report anything suspicious to the authorities where ever you are, and most of all DO NOT allow terrorism or the threat of terrorism to govern your travel plans or limit your leisure activities – or the Terrorist win.

    Travel safe, have fun and enjoy Paris!

    Mike and Pat

  2. Alicia Amundson says:

    I have just spent almost 2 weeks on vacation, primarily in Paris and had an amazing stay at one of the A La Carte Paris properties. Prior to my departure I enjoyed reading through the insider tips on Paris that Alex and the A La Carte Paris team sent out and found them very helpful.

    For those of you soon heading over to enjoy time in Paris, I hope that the recent blog posting calms any fears you may have based on the vague travel warnings issued in the past couple of weeks. This was my 6th visit to Paris since 1998 and everything was great as per usual. I remember the first time I visited and saw army personnel with their machine guns at the airport and major tourist attractions and was a little taken aback initially. Now it is normal (and makes for an excellent photo opportunity!) and it makes me feel safe and secure, that they patrol areas on top of the police force keeping an eye out for anything unusual.

    The Metro system in Paris is a fantastic way to hop from one area to the other if time is limited but make sure you balance that with walking around admiring the beautiful architecture of the buildings of Paris in each district. Taxis are fine but are subject to traffic delays. If you venture onto the Metro, you’ll be zipping around the city like a local in no time which adds another layer of enjoyment to the experience.

    I strongly believe that life goes on and the threat of terrorist activity should not rule our everyday lives. The chances of being harmed on vacation (especially with so much security in place) are far less than the chance of being harmed in your everday life while driving a car or crossing the street. Enjoy your vacation and your time in the fabulous city of Paris, I would be back on a plane to return right this moment if I could! Bon Voyage 🙂

  3. Jane says:

    We have just returned from a wonderful 3 week holiday to London, Vienna, Salzburg and Paris. We travelled as a family with three young children and while we noticed increased security in various places we found Paris and the Parisians to be helpful, friendly and relaxed. We visited as many places that we could and travelled by bus, metro, taxi and walked our legs off. I suppose the increased risk of terrorist attacks do make you feel a little uneasy sometimes but there is risk in life. We had a lovely time, saw great sights and ate wonderful food. A friend of ours is leaving for Paris this Friday and all I thought to advise her of is that the weather may be a little cooler.

  4. Anonymous says:

    A very well-argued perspective – it’s not often that one finds a reasoned and supported view expressed by someone who’s not a professional writer.

    1. Thank you very much for your kind feedback! 🙂

  5. Richard Ewen says:

    We travel to Paris annually and visited a lot of areas around France. I feel far safer in Paris than any US city. Travel in Europe is no riskier than anywhere else. My advice to anyone walking in public anywhere is to take off your earphones and enjoy your surroundings to the fullest extent.

  6. Liz says:

    On October 12 I returned from an unbelievably wonderful 11 days in Paris (my 12th trip), a period of time that began with friends and family warning me, once I got there, of a terror alert for Paris and to stay away from “tourist” places. It seemed completely unreal to be receiving this news in Paris: I saw nothing amiss and felt no unease. I was troubled only by the fact (i) the weather was unseasonably warm/humid and I had all the wrong clothes and (ii) how would I manage the all-night arts festival in Paris–Nuit Blanche–with the wrong shoes, as I intended to catch dozens of the contemporary art installations spread out in the est, ouest, and centre of Paris. And, in fact, it seemed all of Paris was out reveling in the beautiful night of 2 October for Nuit Blanche. The sense of camaraderie and collective delight in the installations was palpable. The notion of a terror alert situation that would have kept anyone home and not enjoying the spectacles seemed almost ludicrous.
    Yes, it is true there were the precautions in place that Alex Wagner mentions, and caution while traveling is always prudent. Indeed, in many ways it was comforting, particularly to me as a woman traveling alone–even as comfortable as I have always felt in Paris–to have some extra security in, for example, major transportation hubs such as the huge Montparnasse metro station. Some public places, notably Notre Dame, require a check of bags upon the crowds entering. Some museums, i.e., the gorgeous Musee de Cluny, had visitors check their larger bags. [I went twice: once for a visit, the second time to catch a 12H30 concert of troubadour music: amazing; wonderful acoustics in that space: highly recommend]. This is not much different than the procedure at certain local book and record stores here in Austin, Texas where backpacks must be left at the front counter. Now that I am back and telling friends and family just how distorted the image of Paris must have been for them here in the US, it appears that media accounts focused on the image of armed guards at the Eiffel Tower most notably. This is not the Paris I saw and experienced as I explored everything from the Parc de Belleville–expectedly lovely–to the surprisingly stunning views of Paris from the top floor terrace of the Jean Nouvel-designed Institut du Monde Arabe, to the wine festival up in Montmartre, to culinary tours of cheese shops, chocolate shops (including artisanal mousse au chocolat–unbelievable), including an Armagnac tasting on the Left Bank in a cozy shop on a drizzly cool Paris morning (via Context Travel–great tours).
    One woman I met summed it up best on what was my next-to-last night in Paris on a nighttime bike tour. The grand finale of a great night riding down, for example, the Boulevard St. Germain en masse, en velo on a cool Paris night, was parking the bikes at the Bateaux Mouche dock. Our group boarded the boat and then took over part of the top deck. As the ride down the Seine got underway, our guide broke out bottles of red wine, and our group celebrated the night’s ride by drinking red wine, laughing, getting to know one another, and enjoying Paris illuminated at night as only Paris can be. The woman I mentioned, a busy professional, admitted she almost cancelled her trip because the warnings in the US seemed so urgent and dire. She found it hard to believe, sitting on the top deck of a Bateaux Mouche with her friends and watching Paris go by, that she ever hesitated at all about making the trip. Many, many people–tourists from all over the world–were and I am sure still are out there enjoying Paris. The leaves are turning beautiful colors in the Luxembourg Gardens. A vague terror alert is no reason to not get to Paris and see them.


  7. Phil says:

    I work as a risk management professional in Washington DC, as does my significant other. My office is three blocks from the US Capitol, hers is two blocks from the White House. We were here on 9/11, and although the spectre of that day will never leave us, if we’d spent the last nine years hiding, it would have been a pretty miserable nine years. Will there be more attacks of various types and magnitudes? Of course, but statistically, I have a significantly greater chance of being hit by a bus crossing Pennsylvania Ave. than of dying in a terrorist attack in Paris. Manage your own risk – if you see something suspicious, move away and report it. Get out – see the rest of the world.

    Alex – please find more properties in the 5th and 6th! We’re looking forward to returning as soon as we can for as long as we can.

    1. Hi Phil,
      Thanks for your qualified feedback on this issue. As for your request, we certainly are looking for more left-bank properties, but I must confess that we do turn down a lot, in order to keep our focus on the good ones…

  8. Anonymous says:

    Alex is very timely in this post. We recently returned from two weeks in Paris staying at one of the Marais A la Carte apartments during the recent increase in security that resulted from the vague ‘terrorist warnings’. We noticed the military and police presence but from our observations, they were subdued and extremely well-managed. We went to all the usual sites without hindrance. It seems the French have a way of making one feel protected without feeling threatened.

    We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and look forward to our next visit. The CDG airport had upped it’s security vigilance, but that was expected, and it didn’t affect the way we were treated. Actually, we found all the airport personnel made us feel like welcome visitors, not annoying tourists.

    Our experience with A la Carte has ensured that we would use their services again, and the fact that Alex has addressed a concern that affects visitors shows that this company will do that little bit extra for their clients.

  9. Linda Cox, a client of ours, has asked me to post her comment on her behalf:

    “My husband and I have just spent the first week of October in Paris and had
    an absolutely wonderful time – we did not want to leave! At no time did we
    feel unsafe. Having said that, we did remain vigilant when in museums and
    on the metro, but the museum security staff are very thorough anyway. We
    also made a conscious decision to go nowhere near the Eiffel Tower – not
    even for a meal nearby. Other than that, we thoroughly enjoyed Paris and
    all that it has to offer, as usual.
    Having lived in London during the IRA troubles, we take the attitude, as I
    am sure most Parisians do now, that we just get on with our lives whilst
    also remaining vigilant. (Perhaps this is an attitude that is more difficult
    to adopt for people who come from smaller cities.)
    Kind regards,

  10. Alex says:

    Hi everyone,

    I am so pleased to add a few comments to this blog.

    My wife and I had the joy of including Paris and the south of France in our honeymoon last year. We truly enjoyed the hospitality of A la Carte, staying in the left bank pantheon apartment which was fantastic.

    We walked the streets of Paris, travelled the metro, took in the night air and climbed the Eiffel too! And there was so much more to see:)

    The price of such freedom to see such beauty as is Paris, has always come at a price. In the last decade, that price now means increased vigilance.

    Sure, police and the army are around. But so too are the smiles of young children carrying their demi baguettes freely crossing the roads. The older Parisienne walks to the corner store to buy the poulet rotisserie!

    The streets are alive with the people that make it so uniquely, amazingly and wonderfully French:)

    It’s clear that Paris has proudly defended her streets by simply being so defiantly French!

    We were privileged to have seen that first hand and now organizing for a return sneak peek in the coming autumn.

    Thanks Alex and your team for this provocative blog!!



  11. Diana Langston says:

    We just returned from a memorable stay in Paris , staying in one of the lovely apartments managed by a la carte, as all of us, I do not take the threats lightly and it is a concern that weighs heavily. However, can one allow them to govern our life and our decisions …it does sadden me to have to think about these issues and take them into consideration, but would I trade our recent experience, do I regret going, was I fearful during that time…no to all of those…We felt totally safe in Paris, in the apartment, on the streets and parks.

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