PARIS – They are known as “Operation Sentinel”, the hulking soldiers in camouflage uniforms who patrol under the Eiffel Tower and outside the Louvre with FAMAS assault rifles.
Together they form a massive security operation of some 10,000 French soldiers deployed immediately after the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo editorial staff in January 2015 and again after the terrorist attacks last November, which left 130 dead across Paris.
Sentinel represents a decisive development in French military operations. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, the number of French army soldiers actively deployed in mainland France roughly equals that of overseas operations.
But the military establishment here is far from unified on the value of an operation often seen as a costly and superficial way to reassure civilians and tourists at the expense of substantially improving national security.
According to estimates, the French government spent up to 1 million euros ($1.14 million) a day in 2015 on Operation Sentinel.
“It’s not a logical operation – it’s just to do something,” Vincent Desportes, a retired general in the French army, said in an interview. “Actually, it doesn’t change anything.”
“It weighs heavily on the army, weighs heavily on its training capacity,” said Colonel Michel Goya, the army’s former deputy chief of staff. “It’s very penalizing for the army in the long term.”
But Colonel Benoît Brulon, spokesman for the military governor of Paris, who oversees much of Operation Sentinel, said such criticism focused too much attention on what is ultimately just one of many counterterrorism initiatives. of the government.
“It’s hard to get a cohesive view of the operation on its own,” he said, insisting it can’t be isolated from other programs.
Following the recent attacks, the French Ministry of Defense justified the assignment of “a record number of soldiers” – almost 10% of French army personnel in active service – as a means of protecting ” “hot spots” throughout the country, although mostly in Paris.
More importantly, the sites that Sentinel soldiers tend to monitor primarily include popular tourist attractions such as the Louvre and Notre Dame Cathedral.
But after the January 2015 attacks, which ended in a shooting at a kosher supermarket near Paris, Sentinel soldiers were also sent to patrol a number of religious sites.
According to Elie Tenenbaum, a member of the French Institute for International Relations, a Paris-based think tank, these sites, around 300 in total in the Paris region, were at first mainly synagogues and Jewish schools, but were later expanded to include some mosques after an increase in Islamophobic incidents.
Then came the November 13 attacks, when Islamic State operatives targeted civilians sitting in cafes, watching a football match and listening to a concert in parts of Paris far from the busy tourist trails of the center. -city.
Critics now say Sentinel’s deployment strategy is hardly an effective way to combat the specific type of terrorist who prefers random attacks to token attacks.
Focusing on specific religious sites, Tenenbaum noted, also risks creating an “impression that military assets are appropriate to community interests.”
“Yes, of course, those sites are more privileged,” Goya said. “But in the attacks of November 13, no religious site was attacked, which means that the whole population is in danger.”
“It’s impossible to keep everything,” he says.
Especially after the November attacks, a general sense of unease permeates even the most basic elements of daily life here. The attacks have also affected tourism in what remains the most visited country in the world.
According to the Tourism Promotion Council, businesses linked to tourism represent 2 million jobs in France and 7% of all economic activity.
As the Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau reported in November, hotel bookings began to plummet immediately after the attacks. Although these figures have gradually increased in the months that have followed, the long-term economic effects of the recent terrorism on French tourism remain unclear.
Regardless, the French government has sought to project an image of strength and control since the attacks.
President Francois Hollande immediately declared a national “state of emergency” on November 14, which his administration extended for the third time earlier this month.
The new expansion will cover the famous Tour de France cycling race in July as well as the Euro 2016 football tournament, which kicks off on June 10 at the Stade de France in Paris, the same location where terrorists detonated suicide bombers in November. .
The state of emergency allowed police to carry out searches and place suspects under house arrest without prior judicial authorization. Since November, police have raided 3,200 homes and placed around 350 to 400 people under house arrest.
Given its high public visibility, Operation Sentinel is a crucial part of the French government’s campaign to show tourists and civilians that the country remains safe from terrorism and other threats.
But for many, this campaign is little more than a show. As Desportes, the retired general, said, “They don’t have the political courage to do anything other than that.”
These critics argue that a stronger response would instead have reorganized France’s internal security services, which Goya called a “byzantine and incredibly complex” mass of Parisian police, national police and gendarmeries.
Different chains of command within each respective organization can lead to a lack of coordination in an emergency, as was the case on the night of November 13.
As was widely reported later, differing authorization orders – and convoluted communication channels – between incumbent agencies led to significant delays in stopping the terrorists inside the concert hall of the Bataclan, where 90 of a total of 130 were killed that night.
“The big issue for me is the stiffness issue,” Goya said.