A lot has changed in Paris since 2015, both for locals and visitors. The year of upheaval—forever synonymous with the Charlie Hebdo and November 13 attacks—made security a paramount issue not only for the Hollande and Macron administrations, but for Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s governance of the capital.
Since then, thousands of armed soldiers in camouflage can be seen patrolling Paris: its airports, landmarks, synagogues and other places of worship, and bridges and metro stations. Initially their presence was alarming. But now these troops, part of the Ministry of Defense’s Operation Sentinelle, have become a permanent and familiar part of life in the city.
The big question is whether their presence actually keeps the population safer or merely creates an illusion of security. Some wonder if their 24/7 rotation is really a good use of such highly trained soldiers. Others have even called them glorified security guards (they are permitted to use their weapons only under strict circumstances). For Jean-Charles Brisard of the Center for the Analysis of Terrorism, these patrols are largely for show; to reassure the population and dissuade attacks. “The operation has a psychological purpose, but no operational impact since it began,” Brisard says. “Now these patrollers are at risk. They have become walking targets.”
The operation is also expensive, costing the state upwards of 400,000 euros per day, reports Rfi. And yet, as someone for whom street commotion, sirens, and ambulance convoys still occasionally trigger the panic from the November 13 attacks, which occurred in my neighborhood, I can’t help but feel reassurance when I see them. Camille M., a 24-year-old server originally from Aix-en-Provence, says that she feels safer knowing the patrols are there. “In France, we really don’t have much contact with the military, so seeing soldiers is a big deal,” she says. “I know their presence has been a psychological comfort for a lot of people, myself included.”
From the many messages and emails I exchange with travelers coming to Paris, I know that the knowledge of tightened security at airports, museums, and major landmarks has helped stifle fears. And while the protective glass barrier and security points that now surround the Eiffel Tower may be “sad to behold,” as professor, author, and longtime 7th arrondissement resident Matthew Fraser told me, recalling how he used to be able to walk his dogs directly underneath the tower, they are symbolic of the times.
Tourism bounced back in 2017, but today Paris is dealing with another ongoing security threat: the Yellow Jacket demonstrations, which have taken place each week since November 2018 (though turnout is waning and the marches themselves less disruptive in Paris). Clashes between demonstrators and police, some of which have been violent, have been replayed in the media to give the impression that the entire city has been under siege. The reality is that the marches tend to occur in Western Paris, on the Champs-Élysées and in surrounding neighborhoods on Saturdays—they are localized and easy to avoid. Hotels like Le Bristol, located near the Élysée Presidential Palace and the Champs-Élysées, have ensured guests remain well-informed about planned demonstrations and how best to avoid them. But they’ve also improvised activities to encourage guests to stay in-residence. “In December, when the Yellow Vest demonstrations were particularly active, we organized a movie viewing on two consecutive Saturday afternoons,” Le Bristol’s Hotel Manager Leah Marshall told me. “Everyone felt very well cared-for.”
The city, too, has taken all the necessary precautions to keep locals and visitors away from any disturbances by closing down metro stations around demonstrations areas, and making clear announcements on the city’s official website and social channels about neighborhoods to avoid and museum closures. “The issue for tourists is not so much safety, it’s more inconvenience,” Fraser says. “Every weekend, stores close and bus and metro lines are paralyzed. The good news is that it was much worse two or three months ago.”
Still, if the city wants to retain its status as one of the top tourist destinations in the world, it can’t take anything lightly, not even inconvenience.
Mayor Hidalgo appears to agree. She announced in January that the city would have its own municipal police by 2020 to address issues of security and order. That’s how it was presented, in any case. Though initially opposed to the idea of a municipal police when she was campaigning for mayor in 2014, she claims that the needs of the city and of its residents have changed since she took office, confirmed by the results of an independent audit conducted last summer by Eurogroup Consulting. Since the start of her mayorship, Hidalgo has tripled the number of officers employed by the city, bringing the total to 3,200 by the end of 2018. Fines for infractions, varying from littering to vandalism, have multiplied by seven. With record-breaking visitorship to the city and the 2024 Olympic Games on the horizon, rolling out a measure that might improve order in the city sounds like a smart, long-term strategy (and maybe even get her reelected in 2020).
But will this make Paris safer? Will visitors even notice?
Currently, Paris is the only city in France wherein the powers of the police fall under the control of the Police Prefecture, a division of the Ministry of the Interior, as established by Napoleon I in 1800, and not the mayor. The 200 additional officers that Mayor Hidalgo intends to add to the existing 3,200 already in service will wear official police uniforms and body cams, carry batons and tear gas, but will not be permitted to carry or use lethal weapons. Though the brigade’s official mandate will need to be agreed upon by the State, Hidalgo’s hope is that it will maintain what she calls “everyday order,” 24/7—overseeing street cleanliness; ensuring public calm by fighting against excessive incivilities, street and park noise; protecting citizens in their day-to-day journeys. That means, the police nationale retains jurisdiction over maintaining public order (including during rallies and protests), fighting terrorism, crime, and anything else that doesn’t fall within the narrow parameters of “everyday order.”
No matter what’s happening, be it a Yellow Jacket demonstration or a climate march, Hidalgo’s new force won’t replace the armed officers monitoring those situations—you just might see them patrolling the shopping streets of the Marais, along the Seine, or the culinary strongholds of eastern Paris. Will you notice them, any more than you notice the officers writing out parking fines? Based on what we know now, probably not.
While locals and political opponents may find fault with the idea of an unarmed brigade— and they’ve been vocal about it in local press—it’s worth noting that the format exists and has functioned successfully in cities like Bordeaux, Grenoble, Lille and, most notably, London, where the Bobbies police by “consent” rather than force. As a longtime Paris local and regular traveler, feeling safer is part of the psychological requirement to navigate the world today. This forthcoming municipal force may not be armed, should Hidalgo get her way, but surely having several hundred extra eyes on the well-being of my city and its people might not be such a bad thing.
This article originally appeared on CNTraveler.com.