PARIS, France — Lois Grjebine, a 79-year-old American who moved to France in the 1950s, remembers well the wave of terrorist attacks that swept Paris in the mid-80s and mid-90s.
She recalls the fear that gripped her family when her son-in-law could not be reached during “an absolutely ghastly half-hour or hour” when they knew him to have been in the vicinity of where a bomb had exploded.
"The country went into a state of shock,” she said. “People are used to living with the threat of terror,” Grjebine said of the French. “People are used to the idea that the country is on alert.”
The latest threat arrived this week in a recorded message believed to be from Osama bin Laden, warning France over its military involvement in Afghanistan and the country’s ban on face-covering veils. The message also alluded to the September kidnapping in Niger of five French citizens along with two African colleagues currently being held by a group reportedly affiliated with Al Qaeda.
Earlier this month, after vague announcements from the French government about a heightened terrorist threat, the U.S. made waves with its own warning to travelers to Europe. The Americans had detected threats, according to an e-mail from the U.S State Department to citizens in Europe, to crowded transportation and tourism sites in Europe, including Paris' iconic Eiffel Tower. But on the streets of France's capital, locals went about their business like usual, strolling and sipping drinks in cafes like the one where I spoke with Grjebine.
“We’re now at the same threat level as in 1995,” Bernard Squarcini, who heads the country’s counter terrorism agency, told the Journal de Dimanche earlier this fall. “If there are military forces at the airports, barriers at schools, and plastic garbage bags, it’s not for nothing.”
A spate of attacks terrorized the country between July and October 1995 and the last time a major attack occurred in Paris was December 1996. Algerian Islamists angry about France’s diplomatic relations with the Algerian government were convicted in the 1995 incidents, which included an explosion at the St. Michel Notre Dame train station that killed eight people and wounded scores. In 1996, four people were killed at another train station, also in central Paris, according to news reports. That case remains unsolved though Algerian extremists were suspected.
The French live with this fear and still go about their business, Grjebine said, and every once in a while there’s a television report that an attack was thwarted. In a televised interview on TF1 in late July, Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said that each year secret services foil “between two and four” attempts in France.
“It gives the impression that, ‘we’re taking care of you,’” Grjebine said of the government’s efforts. Those include measures implemented after earlier attacks, such as using trash bags instead of trash cans. In the 1990s, after bombs were placed in trash cans, they were replaced by frames holding transparent bags, which now have the word "vigilance" printed on them.
The trash bag measure is part of France's Vigipirate alert system, implemented in response to the wave of attacks in the 1980s and 1990s and enhanced after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the U.S.
In a radio interview, the security agency’s secretary general, Francis Delon, described Vigipirate as a “toolbox” containing some 400 measures that can be applied based on the threat. The country’s White Paper on domestic security and terrorism cited the plan and its main pillars of vigilance, prevention and protection.
Among its most visible manifestations are reinforced police and military patrols by rifle-toting soldiers, meant to deter would-be terrorists, at airports, where bomb disposal experts routinely destroy unattended bags using robots. At train stations, announcements about “suspicious packages” are broadcast regularly over loudspeakers and passenger patience wears thin each time authorities divert train traffic to investigate such a package.
Prime Minister Francois Fillon hosted a meeting with parliamentarians to take stock of the threats in late September on the day the Eiffel Tower was evacuated for a second time in one month. A release issued after the meeting said as part of the plan, some “3,400 police officers and 800 military officers are present in sensitive areas,” which can include department stores, monuments and places of worship.
Unsolicited security is also in place for the rector of Paris’ main mosque, Dalil Boubakeur, who was placed under 24-hour police protection, said his spokesman, Slimane Nadour. Four bodyguards are with him at all times.
“It’s not cumbersome, they are discreet enough,” Nadour said. “We don’t know when it is going to stop.”