Paris (CNN) — It’s a typical Wednesday afternoon in Paris, the streets buzzing with tourists, terraces lined with tables, when the wail of an air raid siren fills the air.
The moan rips through the city for nearly two minutes, reaching a crescendo over the midday traffic before fading away.
It’s a strange event. But what’s even weirder is that, apart from a few confused tourists, no one seems to notice.
In France, on the first Wednesday of each month, sirens — initially intended as warnings of Cold War bombing — sounded as a test of alarms in some 2,000 towns and villages across the country.
Today they serve as warnings of natural or industrial disasters, but with the war raging in eastern Europe, the French authorities have issued statements reminding the French that the 1 minute and 41 seconds of sky-spewing lamentation is only a exercise.
“If there had been a war, we would definitely have seen it in the news or something,” said Ali Karali, a tourist from London, when he heard the siren at Notre Dame in Paris this month.
“I thought it might be important, but if it was, people don’t seem to care,” he told CNN.
However, surprise is not limited to visitors.
“It is not uncommon for the prefecture to receive 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.
“Of course, they are quickly reassured by our team, who are equipped with the right tools to respond to their concerns on the first Wednesday of the month.”
A French love story
After World War II, sirens were installed all over France to warn of Cold War bombing.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The sirens we hear today go back to the Middle Ages. Since then, it has been the government’s responsibility to flag any incident that could physically threaten the population.
One of the most common bells used at the time was known as the “tocsin,” which is found in churches and blown by priests to warn the population of danger.
In 1914, the bells tolled for more than an hour in a number of towns to warn 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 all over France.
In Maison-Laffitte, a town of about 23,000 inhabitants in the western suburbs of Paris, the main siren is located on the roof of the town hall. Only police officers have access to the siren and City Hall employees are given front row seats for the roar.
“It works well, don’t you think?” says Deputy Mayor Gino Necchi, as the siren goes off.
The way they work is relatively simple. “The prefecture’s agents can activate it through an app that is quite easily accessible,” says Pianezze. “With this monthly test, we can see which of our 47 sirens are ‘sick’ and need to see a doctor. We need to have them repaired as soon as possible so that they are ready in the event of a real emergency.”
An archaic system?
Stéphane Mollet, technician of the town hall of Maison Laffitte, opens a cabinet with alarm electronics.
Many have questioned the effectiveness of this decades-old warning system. “France has chosen to keep the sirens because there is a certain heritage, a tradition behind it,” said geography professor Johnny Douvinet of the Université d’Avignon.
An expert on population alert systems, he explains that it was former President Charles de Gaulle who ordered the current system and that “despite the various changes within the Ministry of the Interior, the priority given to the siren as an alarm means is always has been maintained.” up to the present day.”
Not everyone agrees on its 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 absolutely no effect on me,” she says, even though the sound is the same as it was nearly a century ago.
“It would affect me a lot during the war because they went every time there was a bombing raid so we could go underground for protection.” Now she feels they have lost their meaning. “I don’t see the point anymore,” she says.
But given today’s geopolitical events, Douvinet points out that the return of the war to European soil may have refreshed public opinion about the sirens.
“The war in Ukraine has shown that the sirens may not be as useless as people thought,” he says. “One thing is clear: when something happens, people want to be informed and warned.”
After Covid-19 and with major events such as the Rugby World Cup in 2023 and the Olympics in 2024 on the horizon, “the council wants to double down on risk and crisis management,” said Pianezze, Yvelines’ head of civil defense.
Sign of the times
Still, calls for change of the system, which some say are outdated, are mounting.
In 2019, a chemical factory caught fire one night in Rouen in northwestern France, and a cloud of black smoke enveloped the city. It was decided to use the sirens as a secondary alarm measure and only have two go off a few hours after the fire broke out to warn people if they have woken up in the morning.
In the meantime, it was through Twitter and the news media that the authorities chose to communicate.
Speaking to the government after the fire, the prefect of the Normandy region, Pierre-André Durand, said he thought the system had a lot of room for improvement, and that “we cannot handle the crises of the 21st century with a 20th century century instrument.”
Hardware that controls the warning system.
Durand’s wishes could come true in June as the sirens are linked to a new, modernized system: France is testing ‘amber alert’-style mobile phone messages.
If effective, they should be rolled out nationwide by summer. While similar systems are already in use in Europe and the US, Matthieu Pianezze says this technology is innovative because it combines cell broadcast and location-based SMS technologies.
This means that everyone in a certain area, regardless of their mobile network or phone, will receive a warning from the authorities.
“It could be tourists who only visit the Yvelines area, for example,” Pianezze said.
“Imagine in the Palace of Versailles, where there are many tourists, they would all get a warning. And possibly in different languages too.”
That doesn’t mean the end for the old school siren. They are there to stay and will simply play a more complementary role in an emergency.
“You can still reach quite large areas with it,” adds Pianezze. “You’ve seen the power of the siren and I think it’s very important to be able to maintain things that already exist. I think we’re attached to it because it has a proven efficiency, obviously not 100%, but it is still an efficiency historically linked to crises or the war in France.”
Tradition has a special place in France, and the sirens are no exception.
So the next time you visit France and get caught in what sounds like an air raid, keep calm and remember that it’s probably just the beginning of the month.