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Unprecedented Security In Place For French Christmas Celebrations


Let's go to the streets of a city trying to mark Christmas even as memories of violence are still so fresh. Paris is still on high alert this holiday after last month's massacre that left 130 people dead. There are thousands of police mobilized today. And let's go to NPR's Eleanor Beardsley. Eleanor, good morning.


GREENE: So where are you? What's the scene? What are you seeing?

BEARDSLEY: It's pretty quiet out on the street today. I'm at a little church in my neighborhood, and the service starts in about 20 minutes here. And there are three armed soldiers guarding the entrance of the church out front with assault rifles, and this is just unprecedented. In fact, the prime minister said that France's 50,000 churches would be heavily protected on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. And there are 90,000 police and soldiers mobilized across the country protecting churches like this and also ensuring France's borders. The country is under really high, high alert today at Christmas. I went actually to the American church in Paris last night and there was a long, long line down the sidewalk because everyone had to get their bag checked before coming in for a Christmas Eve service. And the priest - he thanked the French government for the security. He said this is the first time we've ever been under such security, and we thank the French state for protecting us. But it's really a strange feeling to see all of these armed men around churches at Christmas.

GREENE: I'm just struck because, I mean, you said this is a small church where you are this morning. This is a neighborhood church. It's not like this would be a specific target for some reason, so literally every single little church in Paris and around the country is probably seeing this kind of presence this morning.

BEARDSLEY: I think so, David, because yes, this is just a little church. This isn't Notre Dame. And you can imagine that every church that's having a service today has somebody protecting it, yes.

GREENE: How are peoples' spirits?

BEARDSLEY: You know, they're having Christmas. I was, you know, out shopping - you have to now get your bag checked every time you go in stores - so the lines are long, but people are dealing with it. People are celebrating. But, of course, there is in the back of everyone's mind only six weeks ago these deadly attacks. So people are accepting all of these bag searches and waiting in line because they know it's a necessary part of life now.

GREENE: Are there real threats that the government might know about, or are these just - I mean, just serious, serious precautions to make sure that nothing happens?

BEARDSLEY: David, that's interesting because usually when - before when they would say, you know, we've thwarted an attack, I would wonder did they really? I think people really believe it now. In fact, the prime minister spoke this week. He said terrorism is now something we are now having to live with. He said 10 attacks have been thwarted since the beginning of the year, and one was last week. It was targeted - the southern city of Orleans, which is south of Paris. So I think these are real threats. And actually, last year, there was a botched terror attempt. A guy was going to attack a church, and he ended up shooting himself in the foot. But he's one of these radical Islamists, and he had targeted a church. So I think people feel that these threats are real now, yes.

GREENE: Eleanor, when you and I were together covering the story after that terrible massacre last month, I know a lot of people in Paris were talking about how there was going to be this state of emergency that was going to be going on for a while, worried about - that peoples' rights would be threatened if the government was able to round up people. I mean, are - is that debate still going on there?

BEARDSLEY: You know what, David? The French government is even getting stricter. They want to enshrine parts of their terror-fighting tools, they call it. So this state of emergency, they want to put it in the French Constitution. So at the beginning of next year, in February, the French Parliament is going to be voting on amending the country's constitution to put in this state of emergency. It will allegedly make it easier for the country to come under state of emergency and it won't be called unconstitutional. Another controversial thing they're doing is they're going to revoke the French nationality of people convicted of terrorism who have double nationality. So, like, some of these men who have attacked France who are - you know, they also have, say, Moroccan nationality - they will lose their French nationality. People feel that these measures are necessary to protect them. There's just a new level of reality here now in France and in Paris. The government has raided, and they can do searches and seizures anytime they want under this state of emergency. And it's going on every single day, and people are not protesting, no.

GREENE: And Eleanor, as we go forward here, I know Paris is like New York. I mean, there are some big, big celebrations usually planned for the around the new year, right? Are they going to go forward?

BEARDSLEY: Well, David, absolutely. For a while after the attacks in November, public gatherings were forbidden. But there is a huge New Year's Eve event on the Champs-Elysees. It's much like Times Square, and they have decided to let it go forward. So that will be happening, and I'm sure that it will be under very, very tight security.

GREENE: OK. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley speaking to us from outside her neighborhood church in Paris this morning. Eleanor, thanks as always and have a merry Christmas.

BEARDSLEY: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.
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