Flaws in French anti-terror measures remain unresolved

The Charlie Hebdo shooting in January 2015 forced the French government to change the structure of its security forces and initiated needed reforms, whose necessity was only confirmed by further terrorist attacks in Paris and Nice. Yet, the changes in many aspects did not bring the desired results and remain often criticised by both experts and members of the security forces.

Vigipirate and Sentinelle

The French government launched the so-called Operation Sentinelle on 12 January 2015 in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack. The operation was based on the so-called Vigipirate plan introduced in 1978, which is included in the 2013 Defence White Paper. An updated version of the Vigipirate plan has been active since December 2016 and specifies three threat levels: vigilance, enhanced security and attack emergency. Currently, the second level is declared throughout the country.

The main measure of Operation Sentinelle is the deployment of military units as support to already operating internal security forces (Forces de sécurité intérieure – FSI). Up to 10,000 soldiers can be deployed this way during crises. Yet, the entire mechanism was built only for a temporary period of emergency and not for a long-term use. There are currently around 7,000 deployed soldiers assigned to FSI across the entire country, with 3,000 men serving as reservists for emergency situations. As this domestic deployment triggered personnel shortages, the military was forced to use units outside of active service or the ones without full deployability for foreign missions. Moral and psychological fatigue of the deployed soldiers are another concerns and their added value is also in question as soldiers are considered “third category forces” for internal security purposes as they are used to guard sensitive locations such as synagogues, mosques or schools - lowering their operational value. The state of emergency was extended for the sixth and final time on 6 July, meaning security forces will not be alleviated of permanent deployment until 1 November 2017.


"There is no clear pattern that would clearly indicate what units are deployed in which cases."


FSI deployment system for Sentinelle

For crisis situations the FSI framework uses a two-tier division of responsibilities – the first tier is the division of competencies between the police and gendarmerie, the second tier is the division into ordinary and special purpose units. The standard procedure in a crisis scenario has the ordinary police and gendarmerie units close the area and wait for the deployment of the BRI or BAC specialised task force units or, in extreme crises, of the RAID or GIGN. The RAID is a special forces unit of the French National Police and the GIGN is a similar unit of the gendarmerie. Both of them are designed for deployment against highly dangerous attackers, in hostage situations or for anti-terrorism operations. There is no clear pattern that would clearly indicate what units are deployed in which cases. In the Charlie Hebdo attack the gendarmerie’s GIGN unit was deployed, yet in Bataclan, it was “only” the BRI that was used, despite the GIGN being a higher-ranked unit. Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan attacks showed that if the terrorists’ primary objective is not to take hostages and negotiate a longer reaction time of the specialised units is critical. That is why a decision was made to adequately equip and train all FSI members to be able to intervene in similar situations, a step reflected in the National Intervention Plan from April 2016 by Interior Minister Bernard Cazaneuve’s team. It is a part of the so-called “Procedure of Highest Emergency” which allows all FSI units to intervene to minimise the immediate damage caused by attackers. However, this proved to be extremely difficult to carry out due to its financial and timely costs, and because it subsequently turned out that there are not enough suitable shooting ranges in France to allow for adequate training of all FSI members.

Another equally critical issue that appeared after the 2015 attacks was the shortage of equipment not only for ordinary FSI units but also the elite RAID and GIGN forces. The 9mm calibre submachine guns were largely ineffective against terrorists with bulletproof vests and the standard 5,56x45mm NATO calibre assault rifles lacked the necessary stopping power. Conversely, the attackers’ weapons, AK-type rifles and their derivatives, use the more effective 7,62x39mm calibre bullets with better penetration and stopping power. Consequently, the next generation BREN 2 rifle with a nine-inch from Czech firearms manufacturer Česká zbrojovka was chosen to deliver the new 7,62x39mm calibre assault rifle for the units.

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"Operation Sentinelle should be reformed to have 3,500 soldiers assigned to certain areas and other 3,500 for flexible deployment."


Despite the improvements in the units‘ equipment, the question about Operation Sentinelle’s future remains unanswered. President Emmanuel Macron announced he wants to end the 14-month state of emergency but permanently include some of its special measures in a new law, causing sharp criticism from judges and human rights activists. Such measures would likely include house raids and arrests without a warrant, normalise bans on protest marches or closures of religious centres suspected of extremist connections. This bill was approved in the first reading in the Senate on 19 July and the National Assembly will vote on it in October. According to Interior Minister Gerard Collomb, Operation Sentinelle should be reformed to have 3,500 soldiers assigned to certain areas and other 3,500 for flexible deployment. This would allow for a more flexible reaction in future crisis situations across France but does not solve the strain on deployed already soldiers and police units.

In an effort to strengthen the country’s security in the face of terrorist attacks, Operation Sentinelle overwhelmed the armed forces and the decision to include some of its measures in a new law remains a problematic and exploitable issue from the human rights perspective. Conclusively, even these measures cannot fully eliminate the risk of terrorist attacks. The French government will have to continue to deal with the existing shortcomings and adjust its measures accordingly, especially as the Operation Sentinelle officially ends in November.

About author: Redakce ESJ


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