France is being alerted by the Cold War sirens. Here are the reasons.

It's a Wednesday lunchtime in Paris.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
01 July 2022 Friday 17:16
9 Reads
France is being alerted by the Cold War sirens. Here are the reasons.

It's a Wednesday lunchtime in Paris. The streets are bustling with tourists and terraces full of tables. When the sirens of an air raid siren sound, it fills the air.

It groans across the city for almost two minutes before reaching a crescendo over the midday traffic and dying.

It is a bizarre occurrence. Stranger still, is the fact that no one notices it except a few confused tourists.

France's sirens, originally intended as Cold War bombing warnings, let loose on the first Wednesday in every month to test the alarms in around 2,000 villages and towns across the country.

They are now used as warnings for industrial or natural disasters. However, with the war raging in Europe’s east, French authorities issued statements to remind them that the 41 second of skysplitting wail (or 1 minute 41 seconds) is just a drill.

Ali Karali, a London tourist, said that if there were a war, we would have seen it on the news. He heard the siren outside Paris' Notre Dame.

He told CNN that he thought it might be of importance, but people don't seem care.

Visitors are not the only ones who can be surprised.

"It's not unusual that the prefecture gets calls from individuals or locals who are concerned about sirens," said Matthieu Pinnezze, head the interdepartmental defense and civil protection in Yvelines (a region west Paris).

"They are immediately reassured by the team, who are equipped to respond to their concerns every Wednesday of the month."

French love story

You can trace the origins of sirens that you hear today back to the Middle Ages. Since then, the administration has had to alert the public about any incidents that could threaten the population.

The "tocsin" was one of the most popular bells of that era. It is found in churches and is sounded by priests to warn people of danger.

To alert as many people as possible about the First World War's outbreak in 1914, bells were rung in several towns for more than an hour.

After World War II, sirens were created to warn of possible aerial threats. They can be heard throughout France now that their deployment was speeded up during the Cold War.

Maison-Laffitte is a small town with around 23,000 inhabitants in the west suburbs of Paris. The main siren can be found on the roof of the townhall. The siren is only accessible to police officers, and town hall employees have front row seats to its roar.

"It works well. Don't you think?" As the siren sounds, Gino Necchi (Deputy Mayor) says:

They work in a very simple way. Pianezze says that agents from the prefecture can activate them via an app that's very easy to use. This monthly test lets us know which sirens are "sick" and should be taken to the doctor. To ensure they are ready for an emergency, we must get them fixed as soon possible.

A system of archaic?

This decades-old warning system has been questioned by many. Johnny Douvinet, Universite d'Avignon geography professor, says France has kept sirens "because there is a certain history, a tradition behind them."

He is an expert on population alert systems and explains that Charles de Gaulle, former President, ordered the current system. "Despite the many changes in the interior ministry, priority has always been given to sirens as means of alert.

They are not all equally useful. Jacqueline Bon (92), who was a teenager in World War II, is familiar with the sound of sirens. She says that hearing them every day "has absolutely zero effect on me", even though it sounds almost exactly the same as it did nearly a century ago.

It would have been very difficult for me during wartime because they rang each time there was a bombing so we could go underground to protect ourselves. She feels that they no longer have any meaning. She says, "I don’t see the point anymore."

Douvinet argues that today's geopolitical events may have reenergized the public's view of the sirens.

He says that the war in Ukraine has proven that sirens may not be as useful as people thought. "One thing is certain, people want to know and be alerted when something happens."

With major events such as the Rugby World Cup 2023 and the Olympic Games 2024 on the horizon and Covid-19, "The council wants double down on risk management," Yvelines civil defense chief Pianezze stated.

Sign of the times

Despite this, there have been increasing calls to change the system which some claim is out of date.

A chemical factory in Rouen, northwestern France caught on fire in the middle of the night. The town was engulfed in black smoke. It was decided to use sirens as an additional alert measure and only to trigger two sirens a few hours after the fire started, in order to alert people when they woke up in the morning.

Authorities communicated with each other via Twitter and news media in the interim.

Pierre-Andre Durand, Normandy region prefect, stated that he felt the system needed improvement and that "we can't manage 21st-century crises using a 20th-century tool."

Going digital

Durand's wish could be fulfilled this June, as the sirens have been paired with a modernized system. France is currently testing "amber alert"-style messages on cell phones.

They should be implemented nationwide by summer if they prove to be effective. Similar systems exist in Europe and the USA, but this technology is unique, Matthieu Pianezze says, because it combines cell broadcasting and location-based SMS technologies.

Authorities will notify everyone who is in the area regardless of whether they have a cell phone or a mobile network.

Pianezze stated that tourists can visit the Yvelines region for example.

Imagine that there are many tourists at Versailles. They would all get an alert. You could also receive an alert in other languages.

This does not mean that the old school siren is dead. They will continue to be available and will serve a complementary role in emergency situations.

Pianezze adds, "It still allows for you to reach quite large regions." "You have seen the power of sirens and it is important that we are able to preserve those things. It has an efficiency that has been proven to be effective, although it's not always 100% but it is still a historical efficiency linked to wars in France or crises.

France has a special tradition, and sirens are no exception.

If you find yourself in an air raid situation while visiting France, don't panic. It's likely just the beginning of the month.