FECL 39 (November 1995):

OPERATION VIGIPIRATE: A COUNTRY UNDER SIEGE

Since the Government decreed the full scale implementation of Vigipirate in early September, France has resembled a country under siege: military troops are used for internal security purposes. Is France heading for a permanent state of emergency?

 

800'000 ID-checks in less than two months

Heavily armed soldiers and police patrolling train stations, guarding post offices, cafés and school buildings fenced off by barriers even in small towns. Legionnaires in front of the Eiffel tower. Checks and searches of shoppers' bags at the entrance to supermarkets. Searches of lawyers' handbags at the entrance of court houses. Joint police and army platoons patrolling troubled suburban areas inhabited by the poor, the immigrants - the breeding grounds of "terrorism". Gendarmerie and soldiers combing remote valleys, raiding abandoned farm buildings, checking visitors lists in the three room bed-and-breakfast pension in some mountain village. Helicopters flying along railway tracks and border areas. A total of 800,000 ID-checks in one and a half months, and an estimated cost of 1 million francs per day.

 

Soldiers under the orders of the police

The Vigipirate plan was decreed for the first time in 1986 following a series of attacks in France by Near-Eastern terrorist groups. The plan was reactivated in 1991 during the Gulf war, when Iraqi President Saddam Hussein threatened the Western allies with terrorist retaliation on their own soil.

The main declared objective of the plan is to relieve the police forces of the manpower burden of guarding and patrolling tasks and the free as many police as possible for more demanding tasks. Military officers in charge of operation Vigipirate are eager to emphasise that the army has no police powers under the plan. The military merely "accompany and reinforce" patrols under the command of Police or Gendarmerie officers.

 

Dubious legal basis for Vigipirate

Critics are stressing that there is no legal basis for the use of the army for internal security and policing purposes, while military officers point to a passage in the first (!) French constitution of 1792, according to which "the armed forces are public forces" which they stress provides for their use under Vigipirate. Be that as it may, the Vigipirate scheme is not based on a law but merely on an "inter-ministerial instruction". It is decreed by the Prime Minister, and implemented by the Interior Minister, All police and military forces involved in the scheme are placed under the Interior Minister or his representatives at the département level, the prefects.

According to the Chief of the National Police, claude Guéant, tasks are divided as follows: police in uniforms and the military ensure the security of the public, the intelligence services, Renseignements Généraux (RG) and DST shall "infiltrate and detect the Islamicists", and the Police judiciaire (PJ) shall "dismantle the networks and find the bombers".

 

70,000 police and army forces

Under Vigipirate, the Interior Minister has a maximum 70,000 police and military at its disposal. At the end of October, some 32,000 men were actually involved in the scheme, whereof 15,000 were soldiers. About half of these forces are concentrated in the Paris region. In the capital, 2,400 soldiers are on active duty 24 hours a day. The regular 3,700 security personnel of the Paris underground, RATP, are reinforced by 400 police.

Vigipirate activities are extraordinarily widespread even in the provinces. Thus, police in the city of Grenoble (département Isère) checked more than 18,000 persons and some 10,000 motor vehicles in three months. 173 persons were detained, whereof 23 were illegal aliens. 16 persons were deported. As for the Gendarmerie (the police force in charge of rural areas), it checked an estimate 20,000 persons and 20,000 vehicles.

 

Vigipirate's catch: traffic offenders and clandestine workers?

According to the regional chief of the Gendarmerie, Lt Col Alain Georges, his men concentrate on checks in rural hotels, the surveillance of isolated areas and the protection of the TGV track. In an interview with a local radio station, Georges stressed that cooperation between the Gendarmerie and the army was excellent, because "the gendarmes are part of the military, after all". Questioned about the use of Vigipirate, the Gendarmerie chief pointed to the large number of tip-offs from the population and the increase of random checks that had lead to a drop in crime and a large number of arrests... of "traffic offenders and illegal workers".

 

An emergency scheme for daily use?

Indeed, while it remains to be seen whether Vigipirate will prove effective in protecting the public against acts of terrorism, the use of joint army and police forces for every day public order purposes such as intimidating illegal immigrants, deterring hooligans and petty criminals, and controlling "problematic" suburbs, appears to be a constant temptation for certain government politicians and police chiefs. In this context, one should recall President Chirac's long-standing but never realised dream to create a "National Guard", a sort of combined police-military rapid intervention force for the control of public order. The longer the Vigipirate operation goes on, the greater the risk for its institutionalisation. For the time being, no end of the operation is envisaged. Recently, the chief of the national police, claude Guéant said that the GIA was to France what the ETA was to Spain and the IRA to Britain. "The security plan Vigipirate is here to last", he concluded.

 

Sources: Research by Geneviève Mayeur, Radio IFM, Grenoble; Libération, 26.10.95; Info Matin, 11.9.95, 23.10.95; Dauphiné Libéré, 11.9.95, 24.10.95; Le Monde, 9.9.95, 12.9.95, 27.10.95; IFM radio-interviews with senior police an military officers in the Département Isère (Grenoble), October 95.