Parisians adapt to antiterror `vigilance'. But Americans vexed with long lines for French visas
Paris — The American was angry. ``I've already been here two hours,'' she said, hands high in desperation. Jostled and pushed, she waited in the midst of an amorphous mass substituting for what was suppposed to be a single file line. ``When will I ever get my visa?''
In a country already known for its often imperious and unpredictable bureaucracy, antiterrorism measures including visa requirements for foreign residents have added another layer of red tape. Police are gaining powers and visibility. Parisians are adapting to a new security-conscious lifestyle, including baggage checks at all public buildings, post offices, and most department stores.
The stepped-up security helps lessen officials' nervousness. After a series of violent bombings last month which left 10 people dead and more than 150 wounded, no attacks have taken place in the last two and a half weeks. Both Pope John Paul II's weekend trip to Lyon and the celebration of Jewish New Year passed peacefully.
Still, fears remain strong. Some top-ranking officials say terrorists may be using the temporary lull to plan new attacks. As evidence, they point to a weekend threat by an Armenian group to attack French planes and airports in reponse to a police roundup of Armenians for questioning.
France remains a target in the Middle East, too. The Islamic Jihad group released a video cassette yesterday which showed three French hostages in Lebanon asking the French government to pressure Kuwait to release 17 Shiite prisoners. The prisoners in Kuwait are convicted of bombing US and French targets there.
To counter these threats, Prime Minister Jacques Chirac said Monday on French radio that he had asked both Syria and Iran to ``control'' the terrorists. Mr. Chirac dispatched a special envoy last week to Damascus and authoritized France's foreign minister to meet with his Iranian counterpart in New York. Archbishop Hilarian Capucci, former Greek Catholic prelate of Jerusalem who has close ties to Syria and Iran, was allowed to visit Georges Abdallah in prison. Mr. Abdallah's supporters are purportedly behind the recent wave of bombings in Paris.
Observers here speculate that these diplomatic efforts represent an attempt to strike a deal with the terrorists -- perhaps releasing terrorists held in French prison in exchange for the French hostages in Lebanon. But Chirac insisted yesterday that he was using the diplomatic channels to signal that he would not cave in to terrorist pressure. Backing up this claim, Justice Minister Albin Chalandon has announced his intention to bring Abdallah to trial, possibly next February, for complicity in the 1982 murders of an American diplomat and Israeli diplomat.
Parisians are heeding official calls to be ``vigilant.'' Like Israelis, they have become alert to suspicious looking objects. At one recent incident in front of the St. Lazare station, a passerby spotted a suitcase near a garbage pail and called the police. Five police cars sped to the spot, cordoning off the street and nearby subway and train station entrances.
Then a special van arrived. Out came a robot looking like E.T. It inched its way over to the suitcase. With everybody a safe distance away, it extended its metal hand and punctured the leather casing. Nothing was inside. The police retrieved their robot and drove off.
The scene on the streets has changed. Police toting machine guns have become more commonplace. They have regained the right lost under the Socialist government to make identity checks at will, and are making constant use of it.
A few worried voices have been heard protesting increased police powers. Arab diplomats met with Chirac to complain that the fight against terrorism could turn into a pretext for measures that might erode the civil liberties of the more than 2 million Arab immigrant workers in France.
But these represent minority opinions. For the most part, critics concede that the government's policies have been moderate.
Polls show an overwhelming majority of the French public is willing to put up with the inconveniences of a tough antiterrorist policy. At the Au Bon Marche department store, a security guard says customers have welcomed handbag checks. ``It calms them down.'' And business is returning to normal, he adds.
Of course, not everyone is pleased. While the US government welcomed the new visa requirements as a minor inconvenience well worth the increased security, Americans living here are upset. The visa process is both time consuming and irritating. At first, it was unclear just what to do. Local police said it was necessary to go the city's central police station. But at the central police station, officials said it is necessary to apply with the local police.
About a week ago, a special visa office was set up at the central station. That didn't end the problems, however. All visitors arriving at the police station -- a target of one of the September bombings -- must get in line to have their bags and bodies searched. This takes a minimum of one hour.Then comes the amorphous line. As the wait lengthens, tempers rise.
At the visa office, no one seems to know exactly what is necessary to get a visa. When the American reaches the head of the line, she is told to sit down and fill out a pink form, which is promply added to the top of a huge pile of pink forms. By this time, the bureaucrats are heading out for their lunch break, and the line keeps growing. ``Perhaps I'll get my visa after theycome back,'' sighed the American. Good luck. Lunch break in France lasts an average of two hours.
The French seem to feel little pity for American visa seekers.
``We need visas to visit your country,'' says Laure, who visited New York last year. ``I waited in the rain outside the American Embassy and then they asked me the most stupid questions, like `Am I a communist?'''