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In Notre-Dame's shadow, a 'village' faces uncertain future

AFP logoAFP 19/04/2019 afp.com

a large stone building with a tower in the background: Small business owners near Notre-Dame face an uncertain future now the cathedral has been forced to close © BERTRAND GUAY Small business owners near Notre-Dame face an uncertain future now the cathedral has been forced to close Days after the catastrophic fire at Paris's Notre-Dame, around 30 business owners on Thursday gathered at a cafe in the shadow of the burned cathedral.

The owners of restaurants and souvenir stores, flower stalls and gourmet food markets in an area known to residents simply as the "village", they have all been forced to close since Monday's devastating fire at the UNESCO World Heritage landmark.

Few at the gathering Thursday morning in the Quasimodo cafe -- named after the hunchback in Victor Hugo's celebrated novel set at the cathedral -- seemed optimistic about the chances of re-opening in the near future.

Police are letting only residents and business owners onto the River Seine island known as the Ile de la Cite where the cathedral stands, choking off the tourist traffic that is their lifeblood.

the tower of the city: For people who live and work on the Ile de la Cite, the island hosting Notre Dame, their own immediate outlook -- along with the cathedral's own -- has changed for the worse as they contemplate the fire's aftermath © PATRICK KOVARIK, BERTRAND GUAY For people who live and work on the Ile de la Cite, the island hosting Notre Dame, their own immediate outlook -- along with the cathedral's own -- has changed for the worse as they contemplate the fire's aftermath "We usually have lots of tourists, more than 500 a day, but now there's nobody," said Virginie Aranda, who has a stall at the flower market on the Ile de la Cite. "We haven't even been able to come and water our plants."

She and others at the meeting say the extended security perimeter set up while inspections are carried out at Notre-Dame could cost them dearly.

"We've already had a tough winter because of the "yellow vests, and now we have this," said Betty Toullier, another flower vendor, referring to the protests that have shaken central Paris since November.

"We're at risk of losing everything," said Toullier, who has held a stand at the flower market since 1971.

Related Slideshow: See inside Notre Dame Cathedral after the fire (provided by USA TODAY)

But Patrice Le Jeune, president of the Notre-Dame business alliance, said that based on his meetings with city officials, the island's picturesque streets could remain closed for weeks, maybe months.

"They're not going to take any risks," he tells the group.

Aides to Ariel Weil, the mayor of the Fourth Arrondissement, which includes Notre-Dame, said he was not immediately available for comment.

'One coffee' 

a close up of a mans face: A National Centre for Space Studies satellite image shows smoke rising during the fire, which has seen billionaires, businesses and the public pledge cash to rebuild the site -- but the virtual shutdown of the district is hitting local firms hard © HO A National Centre for Space Studies satellite image shows smoke rising during the fire, which has seen billionaires, businesses and the public pledge cash to rebuild the site -- but the virtual shutdown of the district is hitting local firms hard For many Parisians, the winding streets in the shadow of Notre-Dame are full of nothing but cheap tourist stands and overpriced restaurants claiming to be among the oldest in the city.

It's an image that riles many residents and business owners, some of whom have lived and worked on the Ile de la Cite for decades.

"People forget that there's a church, but there's also a village that surrounds it. The cathedral is our church, our children were baptised there," said one mother, asking not to be identified by name.

"It's a village," agreed Michel Mathieu, whose grandmother opened a store on the Rue d'Arcole in 1921.

That store is still open, offering the souvenirs you won't find from the roving trinket sellers, as is another right down the street owned by his brother. And another by Mathieu's daughter.

Like other businesses, they are hoping insurance policies will cover the lost revenue and merchandise -- the dead flowers, the food going bad in restaurant refrigerators.

But so far officials have not declared the site a disaster zone, meaning insurance won't kick in, and shop owners can't file for state aid for the forced unemployment of their workers.

a large body of water with a city in the background: Eateries, florists, stores -- island dwellers hope their insurance will cover their lost revenue and merchandise, such as dead flowers and food going bad in restaurant refrigerators -- but officials have yet to declare the area a disaster zone © Eric Feferberg Eateries, florists, stores -- island dwellers hope their insurance will cover their lost revenue and merchandise, such as dead flowers and food going bad in restaurant refrigerators -- but officials have yet to declare the area a disaster zone "There are jobs at stake," said Esther Butel, who runs a restaurant with three employees on the Quai des Fleurs.

"I opened today but this morning all I sold was one coffee. I'm not going to make it with one client paying 2.50 euros," she told AFP.

Le Jeune said he would meet soon with the tourism chief in Mayor Anne Hidalgo's cabinet, to push for a freeze on social charges like payroll taxes and VAT for the affected businesses.

But such help, if it comes, might be too late for some.

"We opened just four weeks ago," said Francois Monville, who chose the Notre-Dame neighbourhood for his food shop upon returning to France with his wife after 15 years abroad.

"The idea was to create something for visitors, but for Parisians as well, to reconcile tourists and locals," he said.

But with rent, wages and loan payments, "we can't hold out like this for long."

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