Soldiers Calm French Nerves, but Are Paying a Steep Price

Day in and day out for the past 18 months, two or three French soldiers have been posted by the doors of a small synagogue on the Rue St.-Lazare in central Paris, where they have become as much of a fixture as the bar on the corner and the place selling rotisserie meats across the street.

If people hadn’t noticed the synagogue before, they certainly do now. Rabbi Salomon Malka tells the story of his grandson who was lost in the neighborhood until he spotted the soldiers. “Now I know where you are,” he told his grandfather.

Code named “Sentinelle,” the deployment of 10,000 French military personnel at potential targets around the country, which was ordered after terrorist attacks in and around Paris in January last year, was already under review when a 31-year-old Tunisian drove a 19-ton truck into crowds in Nice on Bastille Day, killing 84 people.

In the aftermath of the attack in Nice, a plan to reduce the number of soldiers assigned to Sentinelle to 7,000 was immediately shelved, and France’s state of emergency, scheduled to expire on July 26, was extended again for six months.

Through it all, the debate about the use of the army to assure the security of French citizens continues. Although the presence of heavily armed soldiers at train stations, airports, tourist attractions and religious sites is widely seen as reassuring, the rules of engagement are being re-examined.

Testimony at a parliamentary inquiry after the Nov. 13 Paris attacks revealed that soldiers posted near the Bataclan concert hall were unable to assist in the police-led assault of the hall because they had not received orders to do so and had no training in hostage situations.

In Nice, 20 soldiers were assigned to bolster the police presence at the festivities, but they were positioned far from the deadly route taken by the truck driver.

Now the methods may be changing, according to Olivier Audibert Troin, a member of Parliament and co-author of a report released last month about the Sentinelle operation. The biggest shift would involve getting more soldiers to move away from their “static,” or fixed, positions, allowing them to patrol the surrounding area on foot.

“Once we ask our soldiers to assume the security of our national territory, we would do better to exploit in full measure their capacities and their training,” Mr. Audibert Troin said in an interview. The aim is to eventually leave only 20 percent of the soldiers in static positions, inversing the original ratio of the Sentinelle deployments.

“A soldier is not trained to stand like a pillar,” Mr. Audibert Troin said. “For that, we should hire private security guards. When the soldiers are dynamic, they can be more effective, and less likely to be targets.”

There have been numerous episodes in which soldiers on Sentinelle duty have come under attack — notably in Nice in March 2015 when several were wounded in front of a Jewish community center by a knife-wielding assailant, and in Valence in January, when a man driving a red Peugeot plowed into two guarding a mosque.

A soldier opened fire during the attack in Valence, wounding the attacker and a passer-by, the only shots fired during the course of the Sentinelle operation.

Putting soldiers on the streets in visible positions may have helped calm public fears, but as the parliamentary report concluded, maintaining the deployments at current levels is a drain on the French armed services, in terms of personnel and morale.

What was initially intended as an emergency measure is now becoming the new normal, justified with each new attack.

After the attack in Nice, bringing down the number of soldiers is not an option. The new imperative, Mr. Audibert Troin said, is to make their presence more effective, through better coordination with police forces and more incentives for military recruits.

Rabbi Malka said his congregation remained grateful for the protection. “It is not their presence which is troubling but the danger, which is now more evident than before,” he said.