COP21 climate talks to be held in Paris just weeks after deadly terror attacks shook the city
Security concerns have led to the cancellation of planned protests, amid fears large gatherings could be targeted
“No, no, no, no, no, the COP21 will be held.”
That was the answer of French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius when asked whether the U.N. Climate Conference known as COP21 would be moved or postponed after the terror attacks in Paris on November 13.
It was an answer as predictable as the question was inevitable. To call off such a major gathering of world leaders in the French capital would have been an unthinkable surrender to terrorism.
But the security headaches involved in accommodating nearly 150 heads of government and an additional 40,000 visitors and delegates are daunting. And the summit is due to run for nearly two weeks – even if many of the major players will likely be in Paris for barely 24 hours.
France has dedicated 2,800 police and gendarmes to ensuring the security of the summit venue at Le Bourget, on the northern outskirts of Paris. A further 8,000 officers have been deployed to secure the country’s borders. Altogether 120,000 police and gendarmes have been mobilized across France, according to the Interior Ministry.
The government had announced at the beginning of the month that border controls would be imposed ahead of COP21 – in what Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve then called a precaution against “a terrorist threat or risk to public order.”
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that several members of the group involved in the Paris attacks crossed from Belgium into France just before those controls were reintroduced. Normally, French land borders are open because the country is a party to the Schengen Agreement on free movement within much of the European Union.
In the wake of the attacks, and after the threat from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) that they were the first in a “storm,” French authorities are further reinforcing border checkpoints. Searches and arrests continue in an effort to break up suspected militant networks. Cazeneuve said Thursday that more than 300 people had been arrested since November 13, of whom some 200 remain in custody.
The greatest threat is not to the summit site at Le Bourget; it is fairly self-contained and divided into three main venues, with the public area separated from the main conference center, which is accessible only to accredited delegates and press. “Everything is being organized to maximize security at the conference itself, and its surroundings,” Cazeneuve said.
Terror groups tend not to target summits precisely because of the levels of security. But there are instances where they have staged attacks to coincide with such events – most notably in London in July 2005, when four suicide bombers detonated explosives on the city’s underground and bus network, just as the then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair hosted the G8 summit.
This is one reason French authorities have banned public demonstrations planned to mark COP21. After the recent attacks, they announced they “had to reconsider the authorization of marches for the climate planned in Paris and other cities in France on November 29 and December 12. It was a difficult decision to make but in the present context, the safety requirements are the priority.”
All public rallies in Paris have been banned since the attacks, and providing security for a march of tens of thousands of people while keeping the summit itself safe would have been a logistical nightmare. There was also the risk of panic in the event of some sort of explosion; a firecracker set off a stampede in the Place de la Republique days after the recent attacks.
The government has said that “all events taking place in closed spaces that can easily be made secure will be maintained.”
So the main casualty of the enhanced security will be the voices of dissent. Many groups had planned on using the platform of COP21 to draw attention to specific causes or to lobby for greater urgency in tackling climate change. One such group was cycling from western France to protest against plans for a new airport.
Most environmental NGOs have accepted the ban and are looking to get their message out in different ways.
“The security context can’t be allowed to prevent all forms of public expression,” said Alix Mazounie of Le Réseau Action Climat.
Coalition Climat 21, an alliance of civil society groups that had been heavily involved in the Paris protests, pledged earlier this week to try to continue with public demonstrations within the city in close consultation with the police.
It said in a statement on Wednesday that it would try to find an “alternative form of citizen mobilization.”
Some groups are thinking of ways to get round the ban with artistic performances in central Paris. Others are considering outright defiance – but heavy fines may deter many people from challenging the ban.
But some complain the ban targets groups which have criticized the summit agenda for being too tame.
“We have the feeling that the demonstrations that have been authorised or denied have been filtered politically,” said Jean-François Julliard, president of Greenpeace France.
For ordinary Parisians, still in a state of shock after the attacks of Friday 13th, the summit may reinforce a sense of being under siege.
Roads from the main airports will be closed to deal with the VIP influx, including the autoroutes A1 and A6 – akin to closing two busy Interstates. Interior Minister Cazeneuve has urged Parisians not to use their cars on those days.
Companies have been asked to postpone deliveries and allow employees to work from home.
Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has announced free public transport from noon on Sunday until Monday night to help alleviate the gridlock. Some 70,000 additional seats will be available on the Paris metro and buses, at an estimated cost of $10 million.
CNN’s Sandrine Amiel contributed to this report.