Paris (CNN) – This is the usual time for a Wednesday lunch in Paris, the streets are crowded with tourists, the tables are full of terraces, when the sound of air attack sirens fills the air.
His screams flowed through the city for about two minutes, reaching the top of the afternoon traffic before he died.
This is a strange phenomenon. But still the strange thing is that except for a few confused tourists, no one seems to notice.
In France, on the first Wednesday of every month, the siren – initially conceived as a Cold War bombing warning – sounded as an alarm test in about 2,000 cities and towns across the country.
Today they stand as a warning of natural or industrial disasters but as the war in eastern Europe continues, French authorities have issued statements to remind the French people that 1 minute 41 seconds of sky-splitting mourning is just a drill.
“If the war had started, we would have seen it in the news,” says Ali Karali, a tourist in London, who heard a siren this month outside Notre Dame in Paris.
“I thought it might be important, but if that’s the case, people don’t care,” he told CNN.
Surprise is not limited to visitors.
“It’s not uncommon for the prefecture to receive calls from individuals, locals or tourists who are concerned about the siren,” said Matthew Pianze, head of the interdepartmental service for defense and civil defense in Yavlins, west of Paris.
“Obviously, on the first Wednesday of the month, they are quickly reassured by our team equipped with the right tools to respond to their concerns.”
A French love story
Sirens were installed throughout France after World War II to warn against Cold War bombings.
Halton Archive / Getty Images
Sirens heard today can be traced back to the Middle Ages. Since then, it has been the responsibility of the administration to report any incident that may be physically dangerous to the population.
One of the most common bells used at the time was known as “toxin”, which is found in churches and was rung by clergy to warn the population of danger.
In 1914, bells were rung for more than an hour in several cities to warn as many people as possible about the outbreak of World War I.
After World War II, sirens were taken over and set up to warn of potential air hazards. Their deployment gained momentum during the Cold War and they can now be heard throughout France.
In Maison-Laffitte, a city of about 23,000 inhabitants in the western suburbs of Paris, the main siren is on the roof of the town hall. Only the police have access to the siren, and the town hall staff gets a seat in the front row for its roar.
“It works well, don’t you think?” When the siren sounds, Deputy Mayor Gino Nechi says.
Their method of working is relatively straightforward. “Prefecture agents can activate it through an app that is very easy to access,” says Pianze. “This monthly test allows us to see which of our 47 sirens are ‘sick’ and need to be taken to a doctor. We need to fix them as soon as possible to be ready for a real emergency.”
An ancient system?
Stephane Mollet, a technician in Maison Laffitte’s town hall, opens a cabinet with Alert Electronics.
Many have questioned the effectiveness of this decades-old warning system. “France has chosen to keep the siren because it has a specific heritage, a tradition behind it,” says Johnny Duvinet, a geography professor at the University of D’Avignon.
As an expert on the population alert system, he explains that the current system was ordered by former President Charles de Gaulle and that “despite various changes in the Interior Ministry, the priority given to sirens as a means of alert has always been maintained.”
Not everyone agrees on their usefulness. The sound of the siren is familiar to Jacqueline Bonn, 92, who was a teenager in World War II. But listening to it regularly “has no effect on me,” she says, even though the sound is almost the same as it was a century ago.
“It would have affected me a lot during the war because every time a bomb went off it rang so we could go underground for protection.” Now, she thinks they have lost their meaning. “I don’t see the point anymore,” she says.
But given today’s geopolitical developments, Duvinet notes that the return of the war on European soil may have refreshed people’s thoughts about the siren.
“The war in Ukraine has shown that sirens are not as useless as people think,” he says. “One thing is clear, when something happens, people want to be informed and alert.”
With major events like the Covid-19 after and the Rugby World Cup in 2023 and the Olympic Games on the horizon in 2024, “the council wants to double down on risk and crisis management,” said Yvelins Civil Defense chief Pianeze.
Nevertheless, the appeal to change the system, which is said to be outdated, is growing.
In 2019, a chemical factory caught fire overnight in Rouen in northwestern France and black smoke billowed the city. The siren was chosen to be used as a secondary warning measure and to trigger two of them within hours of the fire, warning people to wake up in the morning.
Meanwhile, officials decided to communicate via Twitter and the news media.
Addressing the government after the fire, Pierre-Andre Durand, prefect of the Normandy region, said he felt there was too much room for improvement in the system and that “we cannot manage 21st-century crises with 20th-century tools.”
Hardware that controls the alert system.
Durand’s wish could be fulfilled this June as sirens are connected to a new, modern system: France is testing “amber alert” -style cell phone messages.
If effective, it should be brought across the country by summer. Although similar systems already exist throughout Europe and the US, according to Matthew Pianze, the technology is innovative, as it combines cell broadcast and location-based SMS technology.
This means that everyone in a given area, regardless of their cell network or phone, will receive notifications from the authorities.
“These could be tourists who have recently been visiting the Yavlin area,” Pianze said.
“Imagine the Palace of Versailles, where there are plenty of tourists, all of them will get alerts. And possibly in different languages as well.”
That doesn’t mean the old school siren isn’t over. They are here to stay and will play a more complementary role in an emergency.
“It allows you to still reach large areas,” Pianez adds. “You’ve seen the power of the siren, and I think it’s very important to be able to maintain things already established. There is efficiency. ”
Tradition has a special place in France and sirens are no exception.
So the next time you visit France and you feel like an air raid, stay calm and remember that this is probably the beginning of the month.