PARIS, France — The Eiffel Tower, beloved symbol of Paris and France, receives more than 6 million visitors every year. Every day the tower and the plaza below it, as well as the mall spreading out from its base, host thousands of people from dawn until well after dark, climbing, snapping pictures, gazing, proposing.
That would seem to make the Eiffel Tower the perfect target for terrorists. So a blanket alert from U.S. officials this week warning about terrorism in Europe made us ask the question: Just how safe is Europe’s best-known attraction?
Last month, the tower was evacuated twice after anonymous phone calls to police. More than 1,000 visitors had to flee the monument and its surroundings. The alerts turned out to be false, but the message was clear: Authorities worry the Eiffel Tower could be a target.
“It is no secret,” said Yves Trotignon, a French Security expert with Risk&Co. “We have known since 1994 that terror groups could target this monument. We found fliers from the Algerian GIA [Armed Islamic Group] with pictures of the Eiffel Tower.”
“It is a very strong symbol, it would strike people’s minds internationally,” said Trotignon. “If someone blew up the Eiffel Tower, that would make headlines all over the world.”
Several weeks ago, National Police Chief Frederic Pechenard sounded the alarm about high terror risks in France.
"France is today under threat,” Pechenard told French radio Europe 1. “For that matter, French people need to get used to it. We're now facing a peak threat that can't be doubted. There is a specific threat against French interests."
"In order to do the maximum possible damage [such an attack] would be likely to happen in a place where there are lots of people, which could be the public transit system, a department store or a gathering," Pechenard said.
Despite the terrorism alerts, tourists from many nations still swarmed the French icon Tuesday, taking pictures. They were waiting in line to see Paris from above and be able to say: “I’ve been there!”
Security guards checked visitors’ bags and each visitor has passed through a metal detector since security was beefed up several years ago.
“The presence of metal detectors near the Eiffel Tower could be enough to deter terrorists from intruding inside the monument or in the elevators,” said Trotignon. “But it might still be easy to blow a bomb near the Eiffel Tower and the symbolic impact would be similar.”
Security guards and military officers at the tower refused to say whether the alerts had led to new security measures. Contacted by email, the SETE company, which operates the Eiffel tower, said “the SETE does not wish to comment on security issues.”
According to Trotignon, there have been no new metal detectors nor security devices since the alerts. “But security guards and police officers are more aware of the threats,” he said. “There might an increased number of guards and officers, but they remain discreet. They don’t want to give the impression that tourists and French people should fear terror attacks.”
Visitors to the tower yesterday seemed relaxed. “I read about alerts in the news back home,” said 26-year-old Ben Cranston from Australia, “but I didn’t pay too much attention. I am not really afraid. What happens, happens. I don’t think it will.”
Su Tong from South Korea echoed that sentiment.
“I am not worried about terrorism,” she said, “but I worry about thieves. There are a lot of people who want to steal your things in Paris.”
Indeed, the tower is littered with signs warning visitors about pickpockets.
Despite the recent alerts, according to an opinion poll conducted by BVA, 65 percent of the French do not think the risk of terror attacks is higher than it was a few weeks ago, and 59 percent believe the government communicates too much about terror threats. (Germans have also, incidentally, been downplaying recent threats.)
Although France has been the target of deadly terror attacks in the past — eight people were killed after an explosion at the St Michel Metro station in 1995 — the French are not keen on high security measures, according to Trotignon. “It is not like in the U.S. or Israel,” said Trotignon, “where people are willing to go through tight security checks. It is not part of the French culture. Even after the 1995 attacks, French people did not accept the tight security checks and bag searches in the Metro.”
Conveniently, most of those waiting to go through security to climb the Eiffel Tower were from elsewhere.