Cold War warning sirens are sounding across France. Here’s why

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Paris (CNN) – It’s the usual time for a Wednesday meal in Paris, the streets buzzing with tourists, terraces full of tables, while the sound of air attack sirens blowing in the air.

For about two minutes his tears flowed throughout the city, reaching the peak of midday traffic before he died.

It’s a strange phenomenon. But still the strange thing is that except for a few confused tourists, no one paid attention.

In France, on the first Wednesday of every month, sirens – initially conceived as Cold War bombing warnings – let explode as alarm tests in nearly 2,000 towns and villages across the country.

Today they stand as a warning of natural or industrial disasters but with the outbreak of war in the east of Europe, French authorities have issued statements to remind the French that the 1 minute 41 second well splitting in the sky is just an exercise.

“If there had been a war, we would have seen it in the news,” says Ali Karali, a London traveler.

“I thought it might be important, but if it is, people don’t pay attention,” he told CNN.

However surprises are 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 Pianez, head of the interdepartmental service for defense and civil security at the Yavlins, west of Paris.

“Naturally, 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

Sirens were sounded throughout France after World War II to warn against Cold War bombings.

Sirens were sounded throughout France after World War II to warn against Cold War bombings.

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The sirens that are heard today can be traced back to the Middle Ages. Since then, it has been the responsibility of the administration to signal any incident that is physically dangerous to the population.

One of the most common bells used at the time was known as “toxin”, which was found in churches and was used by priests to warn the population of a crisis.

In 1914, bells were rung for more than an hour in a number of towns to warn as many people as possible about the outbreak of World War I.

After World War II, sirens were captured and set up to warn of potential air hazards. Their deployment was accelerated during the Cold War and they can now be heard throughout France.

The city of about 23,000 inhabitants in the western suburbs of Paris is located on the roof of the main Siren Town Hall, in Maison-Lafitte. Only policemen have access to sirens and town hall staff get front row seats for its roar.

“It works well, don’t you think?” Deputy Mayor Gino Nechi says as the siren goes off.

The way they work is relatively straightforward. “Prefecture agents can activate it through an app that is fairly easy to access,” Pianez says. “This monthly test allows us to see which of our 47 sirens are ‘sick’ and take them to the doctor. We have to fix them as soon as possible so that they are ready in case of a real emergency.”

An ancient system?

Paris Sirens-4

Technician Stephen Mollett opens a cabinet with Alert Electronics in Mason Lafitte’s town hall.


Many have questioned the effectiveness of this decades-old warning system. “France has chosen to keep the siren because it has a certain heritage behind it, a tradition,” says Johnny Duvinet, a geography professor at the University d’Avignon.

As an expert on the population warning system, he explains that it was former President Charles de Gaulle who ordered the current system and “despite various changes in the Interior Ministry, the priority given to the siren as a means of warning has always been maintained. To this day.”

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Not everyone agrees on their usefulness. The sound of the siren is familiar to Jacqueline Bone, 92, who was a teenager during World War II. But listening to them regularly “has no effect on me,” she says, even though the sound was almost the same as a century ago.

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“During the war it would affect me a lot because whenever there was a bombing they rang so we could go underground for protection.” Now, she feels like they have lost their meaning. “I don’t really see the point anymore,” she says.

But given today’s geopolitical developments, Duvinet points out that the return of the war on European territory could refresh people’s thinking about sirens.

“The war in Ukraine has shown that perhaps the sirens are not as useless as people thought,” he says. “One thing is clear, when something happens, people want to report and warn.”

With major events such as the Rugby World Cup in 2023 and the Olympic Games in 2024 on the horizon after Covid-19, “the council wants to double the risk and crisis management,” said Pianez, head of civil security at Yvelins.

A sign of the times

Still, calls to change the system, which some say are outdated, are on the rise.

In 2019, a fire broke out at a chemical factory in Rouen, northwestern France, and black smoke billowed the city. The choice was made to use a siren as a secondary alert measure and to trigger two of them just hours after the start of the fire, to warn people after waking up in the morning.

In the meantime, it was through Twitter and the news media that the authorities chose to communicate.

In a speech to the government after the fire, Normandy region prefect Pierre-Andre Durand said he believed there was much room for improvement in the system, and that “we cannot manage the crisis of the 21st century with the tools of the 20th century.”

Going digital

Paris Sirens-3

The hardware that controls the alert system.


Durand’s wishes may come true this June as the siren is connected to a new, modern system: France is testing “amber alert” -style cell phone messages.

If effective, they should be brought out across the country by summer. Although similar systems already exist throughout Europe and the U.S., according to Matthew Pianeze, the technology is innovative, as it combines cell broadcast and location-based SMS technologies.

This means that everyone in a given area, regardless of their cell network or phone, will receive a warning from the authorities.

“It could be tourists who are just visiting the Yavlin area for example,” Pianez said.

“Imagine the Palace of Versailles, where there are so many tourists, they will all be warned. And maybe even in different languages.”

That doesn’t mean the old school siren will end. They are here to stay and will play a more complementary role in cases of emergency.

Pianez adds, “It still allows you to reach very large areas.” “You’ve seen the power of the siren and I think it’s very important to be able to retain the things that are already installed. I think we’re connected. For that because it’s the efficiency that is proven, obviously 100% No, but it’s still a functionality historically linked to the crisis or the war in France. ”

Tradition has a special place in France, and sirens are no exception.

So the next time you visit France and you get caught up in the noise like air raids, stay calm and remember that it’s probably the beginning of the month.

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