Exhausted French police stretched thin by security threats

July 20, 2016 6:00 am

The gruesome Bastille Day massacre along Nice’s seaside boulevard was
the third major attack in since January 2015, a disconcerting
reality that prompted France’s prime minister to admit that the country
“had to learn to live with terrorism”.
But the series of assaults
and the repeated states of high alert over the past 19 months have left
France’s overlapping and often competing police forces stretched thin
and close to exhaustion.
“It’s not possible to be mobilised this
way all the time,” Frédéric Lagache, the deputy general secretary of the
Alliance Police Union, a union of national police officers, said in an
interview.”Our colleagues are tired, mentally and physically.”
This
has been a heavy northern summer season of high-risk events, including
the Tour de France bicycle race and the Euro 2016 football tournament,
which Isis (Islamic State) had explicitly threatened.

Police have also had to deal with occasionally violent protests against a controversial labour law.
“The
French security forces are exhausted,” Lagache said.”Concerning Nice,
it has to be said that we can’t ensure a level of security of 100 per
cent.”
Onlookers jeered as national officials appeared in Nice on
Tuesday, with some in the crowd even calling for the resignation of the
Prime Minister, Manuel Valls. Nationwide, 67 per cent expressed little
confidence in the current Government’s capacity to fight terrorism,
according to the results of a poll conducted by the IFOP agency and the Figaro newspaper.
French
President François Hollande is the country’s least popular head of
state on record, with approval ratings that have been consistently below
20 per cent for months. A significant element in his Government’s
unpopularity is its perceived impotence in stopping terrorist attacks.

In essence, few in France are willing to accept the
inevitability of nightmarish scenes like that on Friday in Nice, when
Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, a 31-year-old local man, plowed a 19-tonne
truck through celebrating crowds on the famed Promande des Anglais,
killing 84 people and injuring hundreds more, many of them children.
On the heels of the January 2015 assault on the editorial offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo
and the November 2015 attacks by Isis-affiliated militants on a
stadium, concert hall and series of cafes across Paris, the Nice attack
has thrust the question of national security to the centre of public
debate with a renewed sense of urgency.
A crucial element in that
debate is the question of French police coordination, a source of
particular tension after the November attacks, when the first officer to
reach the besieged Bataclan concert hall was withdrawn in favour of
more elite anti-terrorism forces.
As French media reported
at the time, eliciting tremendous public outrage, one of those
dispatched squadrons arrived half an hour later, while another was
apparently never deployed.
France’s National Assembly concluded a
bipartisan, six-month investigation into the 2015 attacks this month.
It faulted the byzantine nature of France’s domestic security apparatus,
which includes “national police” for major urban centres,
military-style “gendarmes” for non-urban zones and municipal police
throughout the country, mostly responsible for traffic violations and
maintaining public order.
Although the national police and the
gendarmes are now both run by the Interior Ministry – until a few years
ago, the latter was a branch of the Defence Ministry – critics say they
still have different authority channels that do not always operate in
tandem, as evidenced in the response to the Bataclan siege.
The
National Assembly’s report was released July 6 – nine days before the
Nice attack, in which police practices have again come under fire,
largely for similar reasons.
According to a statement released by
the local prefecture, 64 municipal police officers and 42 national
police officers were deployed in Nice on Friday to monitor an expected
crowd of 30,000. Additionally, there were 20 military patrols present,
five of which belonged to “Operation Sentinel,” a special anti-terrorism
squad launched after the January 2015 attacks.
Regardless of
these forces, a tractor-trailer was not only able to pass a security
barricade designed to keep vehicles away but was also able to continue
its murderous rampage for a kilometre into a crowd confined in a
relatively narrow space directly in its path.
As a full picture
emerges of police response times and reactions, local authorities have
begun criticising national authorities, and vice versa.
In an
interview, Philippe Pradal, who began his tenure as Nice’s Mayor last
month, was quick to point out that the security coordination for an
event like his city’s Bastille Day celebration was dictated by Paris,
not by Nice itself.
“Security in France is determined at the
level of the state,” he said. “Municipal communities, especially Nice,
even with major efforts of local police and things like video
surveillance, don’t have the authority to organise their own security
measures.”
“For the 14th of July,” he continued, “all that we
could have done, we did: putting our camera network and local
authorities at the disposal of the national forces.”
The national
police – who have, according to Pradal, a greater degree of authority
in conflict scenarios than municipal police – interpret the Nice attack
differently.
“We do not have the means to protect everything,” Lagache said, adding that “some colleagues work 14 hours a day”.

Soldiers are now patrolling on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, southern France. Photo / AP
Security analysts here say that the problem with the Nice
attack was twofold: France’s security system tends to focus on Paris at
the expense of the provinces and, in general, relies on a
counterterrorism strategy designed for short-term events.
“We
have military deserts, places where you don’t have anyone,” said Elie
Tenenbaum, a security analyst at the French Institute for International
Relations, a Paris-based research institute. He referred to the 2012
attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse, after which the perpetrator was
able to elude French authorities for three days.
Nice, Tenenbaum
noted, was not exactly the same situation, given its scale and the
numbers of police deployed. But, he added, it was certainly not prepared
with the same level of caution as Paris, where, for instance, the vast
majority of the approximately 10,000 soldiers deployed in Operation
Sentinel are based.
For François Heisbourg, a former member of
the French presidential white paper commission on defence and national
security under both Nicolas Sarkozy and Hollande, the “extraordinarily
imperfect relationship between the gendarmerie and the police” is
ultimately an expression of the government’s “disregard for any form of
advice, constructive criticism or attempts to advocate new approaches”.
“When
you have a systematic failure,” he said, “you acknowledge it, and you
actually try to understand the nature of the systematic failure.”
As
Tenenbaum put it: “There’s been this bias toward to short-term stunts,
which is good for securing short-term events, which have beginnings and
ends. But fighting terrorism is not going to be a short-term event.”
In
the aftermath of the Nice attack, Hollande responded by offering
another short-term solution: extending the “state of emergency” France
has been under since the November attacks, a level of caution he had
planned to withdraw next week.

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