Armed tour guides: A day with Paris' Sentinel terror patrol

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Cpt. Julien's military career has taken him to Mali, Chad, the Central African Republic and other hot spots.

On a recent afternoon, Julien had a more enviable mission: leading his men to lunch at the staff canteen beneath the glass pyramid at Paris' world-famous Louvre museum.

"The pizza's not bad," the French army officer advised Associated Press journalists accompanying his heavily armed platoon down the pyramid's spiral staircase. "It has a slight scent of wood smoke. You'll see it's terrific."

Julien's unit, part of the 1st Parachute Hussar Regiment, is among the 10,000 French soldiers participating in Operation Sentinel, the round-the-clock, anti-terror patrols instituted following the January 2015 attacks on Paris' satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and reinforced after the Nov. 13 assaults that left 130 victims dead at the city's Bataclan concert hall and other sites.

For more than a year, tourists have crossed paths with armed platoons at the Eiffel Tower or in front of Notre Dame Cathedral. It's easy to spot the mission's green- or tan-colored Range Rovers cruising down Paris streets or be startled by soldiers stepping on to commuter trains with fearsome-looking FAMAS assault rifles.

"Our mission is to protect personnel, reassure the population and deter any malicious acts," said one of the younger members of his unit, Pfc Julien.

Participants in Operation Sentinel are barred from speaking to journalists and filming or photographing the soldiers up close is forbidden. The AP was allowed to accompany the platoon as it demonstrated how it ran a typical patrol on condition that its soldiers were only identified by rank and first name and were accompanied by a public relations officer.

Many French are reassured by the show of force. Others say it's unnecessary. What's clear is that it's expensive. A senior military official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to be quoted publicly, told the AP that Sentinel cost 300 million euros ($340 million) in 2015 alone.

Some experts question the cost-effectiveness of having the military provide 24-hour protection to a city already under close police watch.

"I don't see the benefit really," said Sebastian Roche, a policing and security researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research at Sciences Po Grenoble.

He said the French army and the police aren't used to coordinating, their rules of engagement are vastly different and added that it was hard to see an armed patrol preventing an attack except by stumbling across it.

Even then, the different lines of command can lead to confusion. During the city's deadly Nov. 13 attacks, a soldier refused to join a policeman attempting to storm the Bataclan because he hadn't been ordered to do so, according to police union official Jean-Luc Taltavull.

Roche said Sentinel was in place more to protect the French government from criticism than tourists from terrorists.

"The government is scared," he said. "They're scared to be blamed for not having done something."

The platoon began its day Friday at Mont-Valerien, an imposing 19th-century fortress west of Paris, picking up flak jackets, helmets and guns. Then they climbed into a convoy of vehicles and cut through the Bois de Boulogne, rounding past the Arc de Triomphe, the Place de la Concorde and along the Seine until reaching the Louvre Palace.

The patrol was uneventful; they almost invariably are. The soldiers effectively serve as armed tour guides, directing visitors to this-or-that landmark.

Miro Cisaric, a retired Slovakian visitor, tied up one officer for 10 minutes with a question about how to get to an obscure Parisian monastery before they both gave up and Cisaric ambled off. The day's only hint of action came when Master Cpl. Johan spotted a suspicious-looking black object on the ground. Someone picked it up before the patrol could check it out.

"It's pretty monotonous," Staff Sgt. Baudouin acknowledged. But he argued that Sentinel was "still useful. It's a dissuasive force. An attack that could be perpetrated, it'll dissuade people from doing it. But sure, it's certain that, every day, there's not going to be a big event."

The dozen or so tourists interviewed by the AP at the Louvre all agreed.

American Rick Grosz said while the sight of soldiers patrolling the streets was "a little unusual" he was glad they were there.

"In the States we don't have that, but it makes me safer," the 56-year-old said.

On Thursday, France's lower house of parliament approved a two-month extension of the state of emergency declared after the deadly Nov. 13 attacks in Paris. The measure is aimed at covering the June 10-July 10 European Championship soccer tournament that is being hosted around the country and the July 2-July 24 Tour de France cycling race.

Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve justified the extension by noting the "unprecedented context of terrorist risk."

Whatever protection it affords France and its visitors, Sentinel has its perks for the soldiers involved.

Several said their favorite patrol was Notre Dame — "the architecture is gorgeous," said Pfc. Julien — while others debated the best museums to visit on their days off (Invalides, with its vast collection of military artifacts, was a top contender.) Master Cpl. Christopher drew laughs when he said he loved going to the Champs Elysees to shop at Zara.

Last but not least, the pizza at the Louvre is probably better then what's on offer on deployment.

"It's important for morale to eat well," said Cpt. Julien.


Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed to this report.



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