PARIS — As rampaging youths set fire to cars and destroyed property across France, retailers in and around the capital expressed worry as they neared the vital Christmas selling season.
Most characterized the impact of the riots as marginal for the moment, but allowed that prolonged unrest could prompt tourists to cancel trips and further dent already weak domestic spending.
“What is happening in the suburbs will affect Paris retail,” said Philippe de Beauvoir, president of the LVMH-owned Le Bon Marché specialty store, located in a posh neighborhood on the Left Bank. “The impression is that Paris is at war. Tourists will want to stay away.”
The U.S. government issued a warning to American citizens traveling to France, as did the governments of Australia, Canada and Russia, advising their nationals to avoid French hot spots and to exercise caution.
Rioting erupted in Paris suburbs Oct. 27 after two teenagers were accidentally electrocuted in a power station in the low-income suburb of Clichy-Sour-Bois.
Angered youths, mostly from areas with large Arab and African communities, began rioting and burning cars, setting off France’s worse civil strife in more than 40 years.
More than 4,500 cars have been torched, including some two dozen in the capital over the weekend, bringing the violence into Paris for the first time.
President Jacques Chirac called emergency meetings over the weekend and pledged a strong response to reestablish calm. Yet police have appeared powerless to rein in the violence.
To some retailers, the civil strife is just the latest blow in an already bleak economic outlook.
“The retail psyche in France already has been damaged over the last 18 months,” said Scott Malkin, chairman of Value Retail plc, the London company that runs La Vallee Village, an outlet shopping complex in the Eastern Paris suburb of Marne-La-Vallee.
“This is just more bad news. French consumption generally is out of step with what retailers would hope for.”
Some stores in the suburbs have been forced to close earlier than usual out of fear for the safety of customers and workers.
A spokeswoman for Hennes & Mauritz said the fast-fashion giant had closed three of its stores in shopping centers around Paris “a few hours earlier” than usual in recent days.
“The affect is marginal for the moment,” she said. “We’ve only closed a couple of hours earlier on a couple of evenings for the moment. Our first concern is for the security of our staff and customers. It’s impossible to quantify the effect on business right now.”
But some shopping centers reported drastic declines in weekend business. At the Usines Center north of Paris, which operates 110 stores, a spokeswoman said weekend business dropped 40 percent. “It is clear that shoppers are scared,” she said.
The nearby Garonor shopping center, with 160 stores, forced its tenants to close two hours earlier than normal.
Malkin said La Vallee Village had not beefed up security or closed earlier than usual. And though he reported “significant” sales increases over the weekend, he added, “Maybe they would have been greater if this wasn’t happening.”