DEAUVILLE, France (Reuters) - The gently sloping beaches of Normandy lend themselves well to invasions. From here, William the Conqueror set out to invade England in 1066 and in World War II they were the landing site for the allied assault on Nazi-occupied France.
Next week, Normandy’s seaside resort town of Deauville will see an invasion of a gentler kind: the annual Group of Eight summit, which will gather 18 heads of state and 2,500 delegation members to discuss North African unrest and other global issues.
The G8 dignitaries should feel right at home in Deauville, which has been the playground of the Parisian elite for decades.
In 1858, the Duke of Morny, a half-brother of Napoleon III, decided to create “a kingdom of elegance” and built the first half-timbered villas that give Deauville its unique look.
A railway to Paris brought an aristocratic public, and the addition of a casino and luxury hotels set up Deauville to become one of Europe’s party towns in the Roaring Twenties.
Just two hours from Paris, Deauville is still a haunt for the wealthy, although the crowd is less exclusive now.
“Deauville is the logical place for an event like the G8. It has long been used to hosting important people from the world of politics and business,” said Sebastien Bouchereau, who has written about Normandy for many years for a local newspaper.
After the war, dozens of villas were destroyed and replaced by apartment buildings. The more egalitarian post-war zeitgeist took the edge off Deauville’s elitism and by the time it served as a backdrop for Claude Lelouch’s “Un homme et une femme” film in 1966, the city looked more dreamy than worldly.
In recent years, the town of 4,000 people has been trying to extend its short summer tourist season, launching an American film festival and building a conference center.
The cavernous hall that will host the G8 on May 26-27 was built 14 meters (46 feet) below sea level so as not to block the ocean view. It has hosted a series of meetings, most recently the leaders of France, Germany and Russia, but the gathering of the Group of Eight major economies is its biggest yet.
“I hope that an important decision will be taken here and that it will be known as the Deauville decision. Like Bretton Woods,” town mayor Philippe Augier told Reuters.
He may be disappointed on that front. No big agreements are expected on burning issues like the conflict in Libya, and the agenda could be hijacked by a debate over who should head the International Monetary Fund following Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s resignation over sex assault charges.
Augier’s bigger worry is whether, despite deploying some 12,000 police, the event could be marred by riots or attacks.
G8 summits have become lightning rods for anti-globalization protest and since the disastrous 2001 meeting in Genoa, Italy, where a protester was shot and killed by police, all G8s have been in held in remote areas that are easily sealed off.
Recent venues have included a lakeside resort in Canada; a hilltop hotel in Japan and a Baltic seaside resort in Germany.
Activists are usually banned to a different town. This year, NGOs are allowed to meet in Le Havre, 40 km (25 miles) away.
Oxfam France Director Luc Lampriere said he regretted that activists had no access to the summit. Asked if beaches could be used for an NGO invasion of sorts, he said: “We don’t have a navy and if we did I would not give away our plans.”
But if the remote locations have kept protesters at bay, it has not stopped attacks elsewhere. During the 2005 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, Islamist suicide bombers killed 52 people in an attack on the London transport system.
Authorities have reason to be worried: the Deauville G8 is the first summit since U.S. forces killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, France has led the West’s intervention in Libya and its ban on full-face Muslim veils has triggered calls for armed retaliation.
Eight of the 16 people killed in a bomb attack on a cafe in Marrakesh, Morocco, last month were French.
“Vigilance was high already, but it has gone up a notch due to the death of bin Laden and the Marrakesh attack,” interior ministry spokesman Pierre-Henry Brandet told Reuters.
Editing by Paul Casciato