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Soldiers on brink of exhaustion spark terror fears in France

A French soldier stands guard outside a Jewish school in Paris, on February 13, 2015
A French soldier stands guard outside a Jewish school in Paris, on February 13, 2015 AFP / Joel Saget
3 min

Thousands of French soldiers deployed across the country in a vast anti-terrorism operation are on the brink of exhaustion, meaning they could be unable to ensure the public’s safety in the event of an attack, union bosses have warned.

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Machine gun-wielding soldiers and police have become a common sight in Paris and other towns and cities across France in the wake of January’s terror attacks on the offices of Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket that left 17 people dead.

Some 10,500 soldiers were deployed to guard 830 "sensitive" sites around the clock as the government’s anti-terror alert system, known as Vigipirate, was raised to the highest “attack” level.

Those soldiers now look set to remain on the streets for some time, with a government source telling the AFP news agency Wednesday that the current alert level will stay in place for “several months”.

But as the constant deployment begins to take its toll on the security forces, not to mention the soaring costs, questions are now being asked as to how long France can keep up this vast security operation.

“The men are tired and this fatigue keeps accumulating,” Jean-Hugues Matelly, head of the GendXXI professional association representing France’s military police, told Europe 1.

“The risk is that this will lead to a lack of vigilance, which means that when a real attack comes we are not reactive and therefore unable to stop it”.

Soldiers’ fatigue could also lead to accidents, Matelly warned, such as soldiers failing to follow proper safety measures with their weapons.

“The slightest mistake could have dramatic consequences for the French people,” he said.

Matelly’s concerns were echoed by Frédéric Lagache, deputy secretary general of the National Police Alliance union.

“They are standing for several hours in their bulletproof vests,” he told 20 Minutes. “They are not robots, they will not be able to take several (more months) months.”

Cost soars, crime falls

Part of the problem, according to both Lagache and Matelly, is that the police and military do not have sufficient manpower to maintain the current level of high-security, with security forces having already accumulated millions of hours of overtime between them.

The government is aware of the problem and has already cancelled 7,500 military job cuts as it looks to deal with the increased terrorism threat.

And on Wednesday, a government source revealed to AFP that thousands more planned job cuts will be scrapped in order to meet the demand being placed on the military by Vigipirate.

"The calculations are not finished," said the source, but the total number of saved military jobs could come to "14,000 or 15,000”.

All this comes at a significant cost, however.

On Sunday, Finance Minister Michel Sapin admitted that anti-terror measures implemented since January’s attacks had cost the government close to €1 billion in just two months.

According to Sapin, though, it is money well spent.

“You think we are going to split hairs over the cost of the fight against terrorism?” he said on French radio station RTL.

There has been at least one noticeable benefit of the vast increase of police and soldiers on the streets of France – a significant fall in crime.

Property crimes, including armed robbery, car theft, pickpocketing and burglary, fell dramatically in January, official figures released this week revealed, with the impact of Vigipirate cited as the likely cause.

There were a total of around 117,000 of these types of crimes recorded in France in January, down 12.4 percent from the year before, the figures from the National Supervisory Body on Crime and Punishment showed.

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