French city opens famed Christmas market year after attack


French Police officers stand guard on the opening day of the 450th traditional Christmas market in Strasbourg, eastern France, on November 22, 2019. (Photo: VCG)

The celebrated Christmas market in France's eastern city of Strasbourg opened for another festive season on Friday, with shopkeepers and visitors vowing not to be cowed by an attack last year 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 at the market.

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 before visiting the market to enjoy a mulled wine and chat to stallholders.

Castener 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 plain clothes -- including firefighters and the military and added checks were being set up around the city centre.

Shortly after dusk, the lights on a huge Christmas tree towering over the central Kleber square in the historic old town were switched on to enthusiastic applause from visitors who had been streaming in from early afternoon as a festive atmosphere began to take hold in France's "Christmas capital."

'Out of the question'

The 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. That (closing the stall) would show that we are scared and is out of the question," she said.

The historic 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 ($5.5 million) but brings in 250 million euros ($275 million) 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'

Most of Chekatt's victims were foreigners or had been born abroad. They 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.

France has been targeted in a wave of attacks claimed by, or blamed on Islamist radicals since 2015. 

In the most recent attack, a radicalised employee killed four of his colleagues at Paris police headquarters in October before himself being shot dead.

Friday evening, Strasbourg mayor Roland Ries had dedicated this year's edition to the victims of last year's attack.