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.
But 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.
There have been estimates that the French government spent as much as 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 French army general, said in an interview. “In fact, it changes nothing.”
“It weights heavily on the army, weights 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.”
But 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.
But 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 Islamic State 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.
According to the Tourism Promotion Council, tourism-related businesses account for 2 million jobs in France and 7 percent of all economic activity.
As the Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau reported in November, hotel bookings began to fall immediately after the attacks. Although those numbers gradually rose in the months afterward, the long-term economic effects of recent terrorism on French tourism remains unclear.
Regardless, the French government has sought to project an image of strength and control since the attacks.
President François Hollande immediately declared a national “state of emergency” on Nov. 14, which his administration extended for a third time earlier this month.
The new extension will cover the famed Tour de France bicycle race in July as well as the Euro 2016 soccer tournament, which will begin June 10 at Paris’s Stade de France, the same venue where terrorists detonated suicide bombs in November.
The state of emergency has authorized police to carry out searches and place suspects under house arrest without prior judicial approval. Since November, police have searched a reported 3,200 homes and placed roughly 350 to 400 people under house arrest.
Given its high degree of public visibility, Operation Sentinel is a crucial element of the French government’s campaign to show both tourists and civilians that the country remains safe from terrorism and other threats.
But for many, that campaign is little more than show. As Desportes, the retired general, put it, “They don’t have the political courage to do something other than that.”
These critics argue that a stronger response would have instead reorganized France’s interior security services, which Goya called a “byzantine, incredibly complex” mass of Paris 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 Nov. 13.
As was widely reported afterward, differing authorization orders – and convoluted channels of communication – between the agencies on hand caused significant delays in stopping the terrorists inside the Bataclan concert hall, where 90 of the total 130 were killed that night.
“The grand problem for me is the problem of rigidity,” Goya said.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · James McAuley