Who was the bright spark who thought it would be a good idea to hold this weekend’s G7 summit in Biarritz? At the height of summer?
Normally in August the population of this Atlantic coastal resort in France’s Basque country balloons from 25,000 to more than 110,000. But not this year. Admittedly the arrival in Biarritz in the last fortnight of 13,200 law enforcement personnel has swelled the numbers, but they’re unlikely to be buying beach towels and taking surfing lessons.
Biarritz is in lockdown and the airport is closed until Sunday, along with the main train station and those of four neighbouring resorts. Tourists and commuters will have to make other arrangements, although roads are also shut or re-routed to avoid the centre of Biarritz.
In short, life for locals – who will require a badge to come and go on foot in the city centre – is going to be hell for the next four days. The French press are describing it as the ‘bunkerisation’ of Biarritz but mayor Michel Veunac believes the presence of 10,000 delegates and journalists will be good for the local economy. That’s not how many hoteliers and store owners see it, however, with journalists informed that it’s been a slow summer with fewer tourists than normal. They’ve gone elsewhere this August – to a resort that hasn’t been taken over by police and security personnel. “We were not consulted about whether or not we wanted the G7 summit to be held here. It has been imposed on us,” complained Serge Istèque, leader of the Biarritz Shopkeepers Association.
Interior minister Christophe Castaner is stressing that the security is there for the good of the people. But wouldn’t it have made more sense to hold the summit in the capital at a time of year when most Parisians are off on their hols?
The French media claim that the police and secret service ‘tried to dissuade the Élysée from choosing Biarritz in high summer’, with one high-ranking intelligence official remarking that the resort is just about the worst choice imaginable from a security point of view. Basque separatist groups (French and Spanish), the far-left black bloc, environmental campaigners and the Yellow Vests are all expected to converge on this strip of coastline. And of course, there is always the menace of an Islamist terrorist attack.
Protests have been banned in Biarritz, as well as the neighbouring town of Bayonne, and Castaner has vowed that if there is any violence those responsible will be ‘neutralised’. The biggest demo will be at Hendaye, fifteen miles down the coast, with organisers of the Alternative G7 expecting upwards of 12,000 people for two days of protest, which will include an occupation of public places.
One of the organisers, Danielle Mesplé, said:
‘We’re expecting an ideological battle and violence isn’t included in our programme but if other groups arrive then how are we able to control them?’
Professional agitators are drawn to the G7 summits like moths to a flame, and French ones may use the controversial death of a festival-goer in Nantes in June as another reason for running riot.
If there is violence in and around Biarritz it’s likely to be a foretaste of what awaits president Macron next month when his government introduces its next raft of reforms. Unemployment benefit, the state pension and the overhaul of public finances are on the agenda, described by Liberation in its editorial today as all potentially “explosive”.
Already the unions are calling for mass protests. Health workers, firefighters, nuclear power employees, train drivers and lawyers are all ready to take to the streets. The Yellow Vests are also promising they’ll be back after taking the summer off with the aim of influencing the outcome of the local council elections next March. This is the first domestic election for Macron and his LREM party since taking office in May 2017 and his enemies are desperate to prevent them consolidating power, particularly in the major cities.
Before Biarritz, president Macron hosts Boris Johnson in Paris for lunch today when, according to an Elysée spokesman, the pair will discuss Brexit and ‘also the bilateral relationship and all international issues that involve our two countries and require close cooperation’.
These talks should be interesting, as should their trip to the seaside, where batons and shields and not buckets and spades will be the order of the day. Perhaps the Prime Minister could lighten the mood by quoting his hero, Winston Churchill, and that line about fighting them on the beaches.