HomeTravelCold War warning sirens are sounding across France. Here's why

Cold War warning sirens are sounding across France. Here’s why

Paris (CNN) — It’s a typical Wednesday lunchtime in Paris, the streets buzzing with vacationers, terraces filled with tables, when the wail of an air raid siren fills the air.

Its groan tears across the town for practically two minutes, reaching a crescendo above the noon visitors earlier than dying away.

It’s an odd incidence. But what’s stranger nonetheless is that apart from a number of confused vacationers, nobody appears to note.

In France, on the primary Wednesday of each month, sirens — initially envisaged as Cold War bombing warnings — let rip as a take a look at of the alarms in some 2,000 cities and villages across the nation.

Today they stand as warnings of pure or industrial disasters however with struggle raging in Europe’s east, French authorities have issued statements to remind the French that the 1 minute 41 seconds of sky-splitting wail is only a drill.

“Surely if there was a war on, we would have seen it in the news or something,” says Ali Karali, a vacationer from London, as he heard the siren this month outdoors Paris’ Notre Dame.

“I thought it might be important, but if it were, people don’t seem to care,” he informed CNN.

Surprise is not restricted to guests although.

“It’s not uncommon that the prefecture receives calls from individuals, locals or tourists, who are concerned about the siren,” said Matthieu Pianezze, head of the interdepartmental service of defense and civil protection in Yvelines, a region west of Paris.

“Obviously, they are rapidly reassured by our group who are geared up with the fitting instruments to answer their considerations on the primary Wednesday of the month.”

A French love story

Sirens were installed across France after World War II to warn against Cold War bombings.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The sirens heard today can be traced back as far as the Middle Ages. Since that time, it has been the administration’s responsibility to signal any incident that could physically threaten the population.

One of the most common bells used at the time was known as the “tocsin,” found in churches and sounded by priests to alert populations of danger.

In 1914, the bells were rung for over an hour in a number of towns to alert as many people as possible of the outbreak of the First World War.

After World War II, sirens took over and were set up to warn of potential aerial threats. Their deployment was accelerated during the Cold War and they can now be heard across France.

In Maison-Laffitte, a town of around 23,000 residents in the western suburbs of Paris, the main siren is located on the roof of the town hall. Only policemen have access to the siren and the town hall employees get front row seats to its roar.

“It works properly, do not you assume?” says Deputy Mayor Gino Necchi, as the siren goes off.

The way they work is relatively straightforward. “The brokers of the prefecture can activate it through an app that’s fairly straightforward to entry,” says Pianezze. “This month-to-month take a look at permits us to see which of our 47 sirens are ‘sick’ and need to be taken to the physician. We need to get them fastened as quickly as doable for them to be prepared in case of an actual emergency.”

An archaic system?

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Stéphane Mollet, a technician at Maison Laffitte’s city corridor, opens a cupboard containing alert electronics.


Many have questioned the efficacy of this decades-old warning system. “France has chosen to maintain the sirens as a result of there’s a sure heritage, a practice behind it,” says geography professor Johnny Douvinet of the Université d’Avignon.

As an expert in population alert systems, he explains that it was former President Charles de Gaulle who ordered the current system and that “regardless of the varied adjustments throughout the inside ministry, the precedence given to the siren as technique of alert has at all times been maintained as much as this present day.”

Not everyone agrees on their usefulness. The sound of the siren is familiar to Jacqueline Bon, 92, who was a teenager during World War II. But hearing them regularly “has completely no impact on me”, she says, even though the sound is the same as it was almost a century ago.

“It would have an effect on me rather a lot in the course of the struggle as a result of they rang each time there was a bombardment in order that we might go underground for defense.” Now, she feels they have lost their meaning. “I do not actually see the purpose anymore,” she says.

But given today’s geopolitical happenings, Douvinet points out that the return of war on European territory may have refreshed the public’s thinking about the sirens.

“The struggle in Ukraine has proven that perhaps the sirens aren’t as ineffective as folks thought,” he says. “One factor is evident, when one thing occurs, folks need to be told and alerted.”

After Covid-19 and with major events like the Rugby World Cup in 2023 and the Olympic Games in 2024 on the horizon, “The council needs to double down on threat and disaster administration,” Yvelines civil protection chief Pianezze said.

Sign of the times

Even so, calls for changing the system, which some say is outdated, have been growing.

In 2019, a chemical factory caught fire one night in Rouen in northwestern France, and a cloud of black smoke enveloped the town. The choice was made to use the sirens as a secondary alert measure, and to only trigger two of them a few hours after the start of the fire, to warn people once they had woken up in the morning.

In the meantime, it was through Twitter and the news media that authorities chose to communicate.

In an address to the government after the fire, Normandy region prefect Pierre-André Durand said that he thought the system had much room for improvement, and that, “We cannot handle twenty first century crises with a twentieth century device.”

Going digital

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Hardware controlling the alert system.


Durand’s needs might come true this June as a result of the sirens are paired up with a brand new, modernized system: France is testing out “amber alert”-style cell phone messages.

If effective, they should be rolled out nationwide by the summer. Though similar systems are already in place across Europe and in the US, this technology is innovative, according to Matthieu Pianezze, as it combines cell broadcast and location-based SMS technologies.

This means everyone in a given area, regardless of their cell network or phone, will receive an alert from authorities.

“It could be vacationers who are simply visiting the Yvelines space for instance,” Pianezze said.

“Imagine on the Palace of Versailles, the place there are a number of vacationers, they’d all obtain an alert. And probably in quite a lot of languages too.”

That does not mean the end for the old school siren. They are here to stay and will simply serve a more complementary role in cases of emergency.

“It nonetheless permits you to attain fairly giant areas,” provides Pianezze. ”You’ve seen the facility of the siren and I feel it is essential to have the ability to preserve issues that are already established. I feel that we are hooked up to it as a result of it has an effectivity that’s confirmed, clearly not 100%, however it’s nonetheless an effectivity traditionally linked to crises or the struggle in France.”

Tradition has a particular place in France, and the sirens are no exception.

So subsequent time you go to France and also you’re caught in what appears like an air raid, preserve calm and bear in mind it is most likely simply the beginning of the month.



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