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Visitors to the Louvre in Paris praised the police response to Friday’s attack against security forces by a machete-wielding assailant. Some however were not so sure to return to the museum amid fears of another drop in tourist figures.
Huang Shunqiang was in the underground lobby of the Louvre, under the magnificent I.M. Pei-designed glass pyramid shortly after 10am Friday when he suddenly saw “a lot of people running”.
The 34-year-old tour guide from China immediately realised something was amiss. He looked up and through the glass, he saw two soldiers with guns running. Something was definitely not right.
“We were very nervous. We were asked to stay together and the museum staff told us not to run, to keep calm and to go inside the museum,” he explained.
Shunqiang and his group of 35 Chinese tourists were among more than 1,000 visitors inside the iconic museum in the heart of the French capital when a machete-wielding man shouting “Allahu akbar” tried to attack French soldiers standing guard in the shopping area below the museum. A patrol of four soldiers tried to fight off the assailant, before opening fire.
The attacker, whose name has not yet been released but who’s been identified as a 29-year-old Egyptian national, was shot in the abdomen and seriously injured. One soldier was also wounded in the incident.
But inside the Sully Wing of the Louvre, where they were ushered by museum staff, Shunqiang and his group were initially unaware of what was happening outside. There was no telephone signal and it was only when he logged onto the museum’s Wi-Fi that the Beijing-based tour guide heard about the attempted attack.
“I felt a sense of responsibility,” recounted Shunqiang hours later as he stood outside the Louvre surrounded by his group of Chinese tourists. “I’ve never encountered anything like this before. For most people from China, we don’t encounter these things.”
Opération Sentinelle keeps watch
France, on the other hand, is by now familiar with terror plots and attacks. Paris witnessed two major attacks in 2015, while the southern French city of Nice was the site of a deadly Bastille Day truck rampage last year claimed by the Islamic State (IS) group. In July 2016, a church was also attacked in Normandy.
Following the January 2015 “Charlie Hebdo attacks”, France launched Opération Sentinelle, which has seen 10,000 French soldiers deployed in round-the-clock, anti-terror patrols across the country.
Over the past two years, Parisians have become accustomed to soldiers in grey-green military fatigues bearing imposing FAMAS assault rifles securing public sites and neighbourhoods.
The aim of Opération Sentinelle has been to protect and reassure the population with a display of force that would also serve as a deterrent to terror plotters.
Security experts say there can never be an unassailable guarantee against any attacks – especially against determined, lone wolf attackers. But over the past two years, French security officials have succeeded in thwarting several terror plots, including a September 2016 planned gas cylinder attack by an all-female “terrorist commando network” at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.
‘No one was speaking English’
The rapid response to Friday’s incident underscored the state of preparedness of the security services and the lessons learned from previous terror incidents.
Speaking to reporters outside the Louvre, French Interior Minister Bruno Le Roux praised the quick and effective response of security forces. A security simulation exercise had been conducted on December 6, said Le Roux: “It enabled us to protect, clear, ensure security and then be able to give the museum back to those who are working there.”
Visitors at the Louvre during Friday’s attempted attack said security services reacted promptly with entrances to the vast premises quickly locked down and museum staff ushering visitors into rooms without windows.
“The thing that did help a lot was that we were told that nobody could get in. So, at least we knew that we were all together in the room and that nobody else would get in,” said Ruth Hersee, a student from Dundee University, Scotland, on a visit to Paris with a group of her friends.
“I do feel safe seeing all these security guys,” said Hersee, nodding at the heavy police presence at the corner of Quai François Mitterrand and Pont du Carrousel opposite the main archway leading into the Louvre compound.
Her friend, Chloe Brisbane, who came to Paris to celebrate her 22nd birthday, however appeared to be more rattled by the experience, particularly the nerve-racking two-hour wait inside the museum before they were finally shepherded out.
“It’s my birthday trip and it has been so traumatic,” she declared.
“Oh, shut-up,” dismissed her much calmer friend, Hersee.
When Brisbane was finally allowed to continue, she explained that she “didn’t know what was happening. We were coming out of the building and they told us to go inside. I thought they wanted us to see an exhibition. No one was speaking English.”
A Twitter post finally alerted the girls to what was happening, which increased Brisbane’s trauma.“It was so stuffy in there and we couldn’t use the toilets. There was a huge line for the toilets.”
When asked if they would return to Paris however, the six Dundee University students chorused, “Yes, we will come back to Paris.”
How about the Louvre? Would they return to the world’s most visited museum once it opened Saturday? The answer was a unanimous, “No, no, never again. We’ve seen the Louvre.”
Fall in tourist figures
The world’s largest museum – housed in a magnificent palace that dates back to the 12th century and has seen many renovations including the current French Renaissance style – has seen a drop in visitors in recent years.
In 2016, visitors to the Louvre fell by 15 percent to 7.3 million, according to figures released on January 5.
The drop in figures was “primarily due to the consequences of the terror attacks in 2015 and 2016, and to the museum’s four-day closure during the flooding of the Seine in early June of 2016”, according to museum officials. French visitorship has remained stable, the museum said, while the number of foreign tourists has fallen sharply.
The Louvre attack came hours before Paris officially launched its bid for the 2024 Olympic Games.
French officials have repeatedly dismissed security concerns over the Olympic bid and on Friday, city officials insisted the Louvre attempted attack would not stall their plans.
Speaking outside the Louvre, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo noted that all the world’s major cities these days face terror threats. “There is not a single one escaping that menace,” said Hidalgo.