Heavy-duty fatigue for Paris police "Financial Times" interview with Shimon Samuels

June 30, 2015
Adam Thomson in Paris

Ennui sets in for the guards deployed to protect the city’s synagogues, writes Adam Thomson

In the past few months, residents of the city of light have learnt to live with a heavy military presence. Since January’s terrorist attacks, in which 17 people died at the hands of Islamist gunmen, 10,500 troops and 1,000 police have been deployed in France, with most of them being stationed in the capital.

They mainly guard the capital’s synagogues that serve many of the country’s 500,000-strong Jewish community, the largest outside the US and Israel. They also keep watch over Jewish community centres and other potential targets of Islamist terror.

But how effective are they? The horrific incident last week in the southern region of Rhône-Alpes, in which the owner of a local transport company was decapitated and a US gas factory was targeted, is the most recent reminder that attacks can happen anywhere. In the meantime, there are small but tell-tale signs of fatigue among the security forces.

Since January police have been guarding the entrance to a building on the street where I live, taking round-the-clock shifts to protect one of its residents.

At first, recent memories of the Paris attacks and perhaps also the novelty of their role kept them alert, helping them to brave near-freezing temperatures at night as they stood in pairs outside the building’s big wooden doors.

Then came the warmer spring weather and the heavier flow of tourists from Europe and beyond who often walk past en route to the cobbled backstreets of Montmartre and the Sacré-Cœur basilica.

I have noticed how the Americans, in particular, raise their eyebrows at how many of the Paris police are armed against the terrorist threat with little more than a French version of the decades-old Ruger Mini-14 rifle.

Today, the officers protecting the building park a large van outside. Instead of standing guard, as before, they sit inside, reading the paper, making calls or playing games on their smart phones. If they step out at all, it is often to take a cigarette break. Ennui has set in.

I ask Shimon Samuels of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre how things look from his perspective, both as a member of the city’s Jewish community and as a director of an organisation whose mission it is to combat anti-Semitism and extremism.

Over breakfast at Le Rostand, a café overlooking the city’s majestic Luxembourg Gardens, he tells me the four tiers of the country’s anti-terror alert system had been reduced to two, making it impossible to fine tune. “People get used to attack alert status,” he says. “Over time, they just switch off.”

Moreover, Mr Samuels says, the military presence did nothing to combat anti-Semitism. More than 10,000 Jews abandoned France last year, in many cases citing what they perceived as growing hostility. Mr Samuels says that the number of those leaving has increased 25 per cent this year compared with the same time a year ago.

The police force responsible for standing guard has grown disgruntled from the inconvenience of working longer hours and the local press has reported an increasing number of “strikes in disguise”.

In April, for example, AFP reported that police companies from Toulouse, Lyon and Nancy had collectively called in sick just as they were supposed to relieve colleagues on duty in Paris. There have been several similar incidents.

Even if the officers are flagging, the vigil continues to impose a financial burden. The deployment of police and soldiers under the anti-terror alert system costs more than €1m a day, according to the iFrap Foundation, a Paris-based think-tank. Michel Sapin, the finance minister, admitted in March that France’s anti-terror measures had cost the public finances €940m. For a country struggling to reduce its public deficit amid low economic growth, that may prove too much.

“Economically, I don’t think it is sustainable,” says Mr Samuels. “Politically, many in the Socialist party are asking if we need all of this. Besides, if you look at the risk analysis, it isn’t a question of if, it’s a question of when.”

adam.thomson@ft.com