We have lived under the threat of terrorism in France for so long that a state of emergency has become the norm.
‘Vigipirate,’ an amalgam of the words ‘vigilance’ and ‘pirate,’ is the French national security plan that defines levels of risk of an attentat (terrorist act). It ranges from the mild threat on yellow to the red alert. Each level calls for specific security measures, including increased police or military patrols in subways, train stations and other vulnerable locations.
What does that mean in everyday life? Metal detectors in government buildings. Public toilets closed. Garbage bins removed from street corners and train stations. School trips cancelled. And police with automatic weapons casually patrolling streets of major cities.
Back in the summer of ’95, shortly after we moved here, a wave of terror hit France. This was my first experience living up close with a terrorist threat. My daughter, Madeline, was just two, and my son, Elliott, had started cours primaire, the French equivalent of grade one. We were living in Lyon and my husband traveled frequently to Paris on the TGV, the high-speed train.
I felt incredibly vulnerable and exposed to dangers that suddenly seemed omnipresent. Our apartment was in a busy part of the third arondissement, just a couple of blocks from the fire station where sirens were going constantly. The narrow streets of our quartier were tightly packed with parked cars – each a potential bomb.
People were warned to watch for abandoned bags in public places. I began to look suspiciously at garbage bags piled by the curb. If someone set their suitcase down outside a shop, I was ready to call the police. My husband joked about my paranoia. But where to draw the line?
That July, a gas bottle exploded in the Paris Metro station Saint-Michel, killing eight and injuring 80, and other bombs were set at the Arc de Triomphe and on the TGV train line. Then a car bomb blew up in front of a Jewish school in Villeurbanne, just next to Lyon. Fortunately, the children had been kept late so the worst was avoided. Some weeks later, a young Algerian named Khaled Kelkal was shot down and killed in the hills outside of Lyon by the GIGN, an elite paramilitary force. He was part of the “Armed Islamic Group” that had been trying to bring the civil war in Algeria to France. His fingerprints had been found on homemade bombs used in the attacks. They were similar to those used in Boston.
The first time I saw men toting machine guns on the streets of Paris, I was terrified. “Are those babies actually loaded?” I asked my husband. He told me not to worry – they were there to protect us. I have since heard this sentiment echoed many times by the French, who are visibly reassured by a display of official weaponry.
Perhaps it’s cultural but when I see weapons I do not feel safe. They are there to be used, and who knows who might get caught in the crossfire?
I also learned to distinguish between the various levels of “les forces de l’ordre.” The French do not use the word police in any generic way, which I learned after mistakenly referring to to la police every time I saw an uniformed officer.
Your typical local policeman is a municipal employee. ‘Les flics’ as the cops are called, give out tickets and tell you to move on if you’re loitering. In Paris and other major cities much of the policing is handled by the National Police, or CRS, who report to the Minister of the Interior. Don’t ask me why this is important but trust me, it is. These guys are in charge of identity checks and traffic control in la capitale.
Then you have the gendarmes, who are actually members of the military deployed to protect the highways, regions and smaller towns. The word ‘gendarme’ comes from the old French ‘gens d’armes’ meaning men-at-arms.
When things get very scary, they bring in the big guns. The National Gendarmerie Intervention Group, commonly abbreviated GIGN (Groupe d’Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale), is a special operations unit trained to perform counter-terrorist and hostage rescue missions. These guys wear masks to keep their identity secret.
Since the bombings at the Boston marathon, France has once again stepped up its security status to ‘rouge renforcé’. According to President Hollande, who checked out the Vigipirate plan at Charles de Gaulle airport on Thursday, this is nothing out of the ordinary. Since the French intervention in Mali, and its position on Syria, indeed, ever since the war in Iraq, France remains on the alert.
This is the new normal.