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Biarritz residents and business owners uneasy over G7 lockdown

Iroz Gaizka, AFP | A woman lies on a deck chair next to other empties at "la Promenade de la Grande Plage" in Biarritz, on August 13, 2019.

As Biarritz prepares to host the G7 summit this weekend, some residents and business owners worry that “unprecedented” security measures could put a damper on the resort town’s economy.

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“Everyone is worried,” says Vincent Plaze, manager at More and Less, a surf shop just steps from the beach. “This is the time of year when we make our profit. This year, we already know that we’re not going to make any profits… We’re not super happy.”

Life in Biarritz, located about 30 kilometres north of the Spanish border on the French Basque coast, revolves heavily around the summer tourist season. The town’s population more than quadruples in July and August, swelling from a sleepy 25,000 to as high as 110,000, according to the mayor’s office.

Security measures for the G7, which officially begins Saturday, will make it challenging for tourists to reach Biarritz this week, however. French President Emmanuel Macron warned during a preparatory visit in May that security would be “unprecedented” and “extremely heavy”. The Biarritz airport will be closed to the public from Thursday to Sunday, as will the train station and those of four neighbouring municipalities. Commuter trains are canceled, and a section of the closest highway will be rerouted.

Those already in Biarritz will face a “reinforced” security cordon around the northern half of the town’s beachfront, where G7 venues, including the main casino and the prestigious Hotel du Palais, are located. This “red zone” will be closed to cars, and pedestrian access will be restricted to residents, business owners, and employees carrying a special badge supplied by police. A second, larger “blue zone” comprising much of Biarritz’s downtown will also require a badge for access, but will be partially open to cars.

Much of this security is aimed at preventing protests. A counter-summit organized by left-wing groups who accuse the G7 of “perpetuating a system which was led to a rise in inequality” has been pushed several towns away, in Hendaye on the Spanish border.

Plaze says the security measures will make it virtually impossible for his two seasonal employees to make it to work, meaning they have little choice but to take time off on the days of the summit. Moreover, many business owners have observed a general drop in tourism this month. Philippe Beudin, director of Biarritz Surf Training, says that reservations for surfing classes are down by about 25 percent for the second half of August. Surfing, one of Biarritz’s main attractions, will be banned in key areas for the duration of the summit.

An opportunity that ‘no mayor would turn down’

Mayor Michel Veunac has sought to allay concerns that the G7 will lead to a “bunkerization” of Biarritz. He points out that the restricted zones only make up a quarter of the town, and says that the “vast majority of business owners” share his pride in hosting the summit. Veunac sees the G7 as an economic opportunity for Biarritz that “no mayor would turn down”.

About 10,000 people will be attending the summit, including 6,000 delegates and 4,000 accredited journalists. Moreover, Veunac says the summit will burnish the town’s image and attract future business tourism.

The mayor’s office has also held a series of meetings with business owners, and says it has put in place a mechanism for reimbursements on a case-by-case basis in the event that businesses do suffer a loss in revenue. Several business owners contacted by FRANCE 24 confirmed that they were aware of such a mechanism, though Plaze, of More and Less, says that it has been planned in such a way that the store will not likely benefit from it. He says the indemnities announced will be based on revenue figures for the full year, rather than for the period most affected by the summit, meaning that those who work extra before and after to make up for the short-term losses will not be compensated.

Plaze agrees the summit could bring some benefits over the long term, pointing to renovations that have made Biarritz “even nicer” than it was before. But in the short term, preparations for the summit are already taking their toll. Plaze says More and Less already lost half of its expected revenue during the month of February due to construction for the summit. He worries that the shop may not be able to pay its two seasonal employees bonuses this year, despite a successful pre-season in May and June.

Others share his concerns. Aurélie Dussart, manager at the luxury clothing store Mc Market, says it’s “just not normal” that she has so few customers at this time of year.

The lead-up to the summit has been a “catastrophe” in terms of tourism, she says. Much of Mc Market’s clientele comes from the neighbouring Hotel du Palais, originally built in 1855 as a summer villa for Empress Eugénie and Napoleon III. The hotel remains a local landmark, and will serve as one of the main venues of the G7. It was partially closed for renovations the first half of this year, and will be fully closed during the summit, taking a toll on neighbouring businesses.

Counter-protests

The imperial relic will also make a striking setting for a summit whose theme is “fighting against inequalities” – an irony not lost on the organizers of Alternatives G7, a counter-summit organized by alter-globalization activists, labour unions and other left-wing groups in Hendaye, on the France-Spain border.

“The French government claims to be putting the fight against inequality at the heart of the G7 agenda,” its organizers write. “But who is responsible for this rise in inequality, if not the richest countries and the neoliberal policies they have implemented?”

Iorz Gaizka, AFP | French and Spanish police stand at a security checkpoint on the Saint-Jacques bridge between Hendaye and Irun at the French-Spanish border, on August 19, 2019.

Alternatives G7 is expected to draw about 12,000 activists to Hendaye over the course of the week. Some Basque coast residents share their concerns. A petition titled “G7: No to taking the Basque coast hostage!” has collected about 4,000 signatures. It calls the decision to host the summit in Biarritz a “scandalous waste”, demanding enormous public spending on security measures that could have been avoided if world leaders had met in a more isolated setting, as they typically have in the past. The petition demands that Macron’s government instead use the public funds “to fight poverty and the ecological crisis”.

‘Climate of fear’

Critics also accuses the G7 of creating a “climate of fear” in and around Biarritz – a sentiment echoed by several residents and business owners contacted by FRANCE 24. Dussart, of Mc Market, says there have been helicopters and riot police “everywhere” since Monday.

“It’s only the beginning, and it still feels very weird,” she says.

“There’s sort of a strange atmosphere,” agrees Plaze, of More and Less. “There are police officers everywhere, looking at you all the time… You get the impression that you’re going to be checked every 10 metres,” he says, though he notes that this hasn’t actually been the case yet.

Government sources have declined to give an exact count of police and military personnel mobilized for the event, but their numbers are estimated at upwards of 10,000, with nearly 4,000 being lodged just in the town of Seignosse, about 40 kilometres north of Biarritz.

Among security forces’ chief concerns will be to prevent violent protests, as such summits have confronted in the past. In 2017, black bloc protesters clashed with police and caused considerable damage on the margins of the G20 summit in Hamburg, and France saw its most violent protests in decades during the Yellow Vest demonstrations, which began last November. Protests are banned in Biarritz as well as neighbouring Bayonne and Anglet for the duration of the summit. French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner warned that if any violent protests do take place, they will be “neutralized”.

Still, not everyone in Biarritz is troubled by the security measures. Christophe Floret, a manager at the Franck Provost hair salon, located in the G7 “red zone”, says that fears of the town being shut down for the summit are exaggerated.

“I don't have that French spirit that revolts against everything before it’s even done,” he says. As of Monday, he says, the hair salon has been as busy as ever.

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