Eric Gaillard / Reuters
French police patrol in the bay of Cannes ahead of the start of the G-20 summit on Wednesday.
By Adrienne Mong, NBC News Correspondent
CANNES, France – When a colleague heard that the G-20 economic summit was going to be held in Cannes, his reaction was not unlike that of many others I know: “Are they that tone-deaf?”
Cannes, after all, with its tony hotels, celebrity-studded film festival, and a beach filled with a bevy of beauties, conjures up both New and Old World high society and glamour. The image of government leaders – even with sleeves rolled up – working to fix the world economic crisis in a place synonymous with wealth and luxury suggests that heads of state are far more out of touch with the on-the-ground realities of everyday folk.
But after conversations with members of the local community, Cannes isn’t quite what it seems. Or what it might have seemed once long ago.
"We're all suffering economically," said Yvette Leibovici, a local resident. "We're affected just like everybody else."
Leibovici once ran her own property business with seven to eight employees. She had to let go of her staff and is now just an employee herself at a real estate agency that specializes in short-term rentals.
She and a colleague said tourism – one of two industries that underpin the Cannes economy – had definitely slowed during the past season and there had been fewer holiday-goers in town.
The most recent tourism data available shows that in 2009 the city of Cannes welcomed 1.8 million visitors. While more recent tourism statistics for Cannes were not readily available (despite a visit to the Tourism office at the G-20 Media Center), statistics for the larger region indicate that growth has been slow. Hotel bookings for the greater region of the south of France, which includes the French Riviera, saw only a 0.1 per cent increase in August (peak holiday season) this year compared to August 2010.
Vincent Kessler / Reuters
An anti-G20 demonstrator wearing a mask portraying France's President Nicolas Sarkozy takes part in a protest against globalization on a beach in Nice, southeastern France, near Cannes, on Wednesday.
Losses in revenue have been offset, however, by the other critical industry: a reasonably healthy stream of large-scale conferences, including the G-20. Just Wednesday morning, in fact, Leibovici said she had fielded calls from three different clients about renting properties.
But as with many small European cities, Cannes and its 70,000 people are caught in the middle of changing economic tides.
Leibovici, whose family dates back six generations in Cannes, said life had become harder for residents in the face of growing costs – in particular, real estate prices that are being driven sky-high by buyers and investors coming in from overseas.
Young French people especially are hard hit, continued Leibovici, in part because they can’t afford to buy their own homes and also because there are no long-term job prospects. "The young don't want to stay here, and they don't want to come here.”
The city instead attracts the old, she said, likening it to a retirement destination.
“The prestige of Cannes has diminished,” continued Leibovici.
No downturn for the wealthy
Diminished, of course, is a relative term.
"It's been a very good year," said Sander Smids, a florist who moved to Cannes from the Netherlands 25 years ago. "Most of my clients are very well-off," he said, showing us an order for 2,000 euros ($2,760) worth of roses that had just been ordered by a customer who hails from the Middle East.
Michel Euler / AP
A view of the Croisette, with the Palais des Festivals at center in Cannes, France where the G-20 summit is taking place.
Some of his clients are hotels, said Smids, but most are private individuals, often Russian or Middle Eastern. And they make up the “international” money that keeps afloat businesses catering to the high-end market.
Smids’ overflowing shop is in the center of Cannes, but he said owners of neighboring small retailers had complained that it was getting harder to stay in business just serving the local community.
On Wednesday, a day ahead of the G-20 summit talks, the street housing the florist was eerily lifeless since the French authorities had sealed off the neighborhood for security reasons. Only a handful of businesses were open, including the florist, perhaps optimistic that that G-20 delegates and journalists would make up for the dearth of foot traffic.
Nevertheless, Smids said, "The G-20 is good.”
"I may be losing a week's business," he continued. "But maybe this [coverage of the G-20 in the press] will bring back the name of Cannes."
And just in case anyone doubted the local spirit, cafe owner Sophie Espereno shrugged off the suggestion her hometown had lost any of its luster.
"Cannes will always be Cannes," she said.
With additional reporting by NBC News’ Nancy Ing.