Paris-They are known as “Operation Sentinel,” the imposing soldiers in camouflage uniforms who patrol beneath 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 editorial offices of Charlie Hebdo in January 2015 and again after the terrorist attacks last November, which left 130 dead across Paris.
Sentinel represents a watershed 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 metropolitan France roughly equals that of overseas operations.
However, the military establishment here is far from unified on the value of an operation often seen as a costly and superficial means of reassuring civilians and tourists at the expense of substantive improvement to national security.
Estimates show that the French government spent as much as 1 million euros ($1.14 million) a day in 2015 on Operation Sentinel.
For his part, retired French Army General Vincent Desportes said in an interview “It’s not a logical operation, it’s just to do something.”
“In fact, it changes nothing,” he added.
“It weighs heavily on the army, weighs heavily on their capacity for training,” said Col. Michel Goya, a former assistant army chief of staff. “It’s very penalizing for the army in the long term.”
Nonetheless, Col. Benoît Brulon, a spokesman for the military governor of Paris, which oversees much of Operation Sentinel, said these criticisms focus too much
attention on what is ultimately just one of the government’s many anti-terrorism initiatives.
“It’s difficult to have a coherent vision of the operation alone,” he said, insisting that it cannot be isolated from other programs.
In the wake of recent attacks, the French Ministry of Defense justified allocating “a record number of soldiers” — nearly 10 percent of France’s active-duty army personnel — as a means of protecting “sensible ‘points’ ” throughout the country, although mostly in Paris.
Most prominently, the sites that Sentinel soldiers tend to police mostly include popular tourist attractions such as the Louvre and Notre Dame Cathedral.
Yet, after the January 2015 attacks, which ended with a shootout at a kosher supermarket outside Paris, Sentinel soldiers were also sent to patrol a number of religious sites.
According to Elie Tenenbaum, a fellow at the French Institute of International Relations, a Paris-based think tank, those sites, approximately 300 in total in the Paris region, were first predominately synagogues and Jewish schools but were later expanded to include certain mosques after an increase in Islamophobic incidents.
Then came the Nov. 13 attacks, when ISIS operatives targeted civilians as they sat at cafes, attended a soccer game and listened to a concert in parts of Paris far from the well-trodden tourist path in the center of the city.
Critics now say Sentinel’s deployment strategy is hardly an effective means of fighting the specific type of terrorist who favors random attacks to symbolic ones.
Emphasizing specific religious sites, Tenenbaum noted, also runs the risk of creating an “impression of military assets being appropriated for community interests.”
“Yes, of course, these sites are more privileged,” Goya said. “But in the attacks of November 13, no religious site was attacked, which means that all the population is at risk.”
“It’s impossible to guard all,” he said.
Especially after the November attacks, a general sense of unease pervades even the most basic elements of daily life here. The attacks have also affected tourism in what is still the world’s most-visited country.