Christmas markets around Europe were open for business on Saturday — including in Strasbourg, where shopkeepers and visitors refused to be cowed by last year’s attack by a radical Islamist gunman that killed five people.
The annual celebrations around a giant Christmas tree will be shadowed by the events of December 11, 2018, when Cherif Chekatt, 29, went on the rampage in the eastern French city.
The anniversary itself will be marked by a sombre homage to the memory of those killed.
“We have no specific elements of concern — terrorist or otherwise — concerning the Christmas market in Strasbourg,” Interior Minister Christophe Castaner told the Dernieres Nouvelles d’Alsace newspaper on Friday before visiting the market to enjoy a mulled wine and chat to stallholders.
Castaner said he wanted to “bring a message of vigilance but also calm, confidence and an invitation to the festivities” and said the presence of security personnel, including anti-terrorist elite forces, would comprise a “reassuring presence” for visitors.
He added that “around 760” security personnel will be on duty — in uniform and plainclothes — including firefighters and the military and added checks were being set up around the city centre.
Stallholders who run some 300 wooden chalets selling local produce, souvenirs and Christmas products say they are still haunted by memories of the attack but that the market’s work must go on.
Setting out her wares at the stall where she has worked for half a century, Monique Kuprycz-Adam said that the atmosphere was still oppressive but there was no questioning of shunning the event.
“My family has done the Christmas market since 1906. [Closing the stall] would show that we are scared and is out of the question,” she said.
The market, which is being held in the city for the 450th year, is of key economic importance for Strasbourg and other cities and towns of northeastern France.
Every year sees a huge influx of visitors, with 2.0 million expected in Strasbourg and 1.5 million awaited in nearby Colmar, home to one of France’s prettiest markets, to enjoy the shopping and goblets of mulled wine.
The Strasbourg market, which will stay open until December 30, has a budget of up to five million euros but brings in 250 million euros in income for the city.
“The Christmas market is something magical for the young, the grown-ups and the elderly,” said Christiane, a pensioner visiting the market on Friday. “We will think about the attack but it won’t stop us. Otherwise, they will win.”
‘Can’t ever forget’
Chekatt’s victims included a Thai tourist, a Franco-Afghan garage owner and an Italian journalist.
He also wounded 11 people during his shooting and stabbing spree before being shot dead by police after a two-day manhunt.
Chekatt, who was on a watchlist of suspected Islamist radicals, had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) group in a video found by investigators on a USB stick.
But the government dismissed a claim by IS that it was responsible for the attack.
“Whether it’s two years, three years, four years, ten years, I personally would still have the sounds of the gunshots in my head and the sparks from the gun,” said Maxime Sengel, manager of a restaurant near where a victim died.
“That’s something we can never forget,” he added.
Alexandra Friess, owner of ‘Cream Parfait’, said: “We do what we usually do, we opened quite peacefully, we do hope that nothing is going to happen but other than that it’s business as usual, it’s the festive season and we put things behind us.”
Helene Lang, a Strasbourg resident, said: “It’s great that the market is taking place after last year’s events, I hope that everything will go well, that people understand and are conscious of the necessity of having those checkpoints even if, as a Strasbourg resident, I will avoid the town centre.”
France has been targeted in a wave of attacks claimed by or blamed on Islamist radicals since 2015.