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In France, Soldiers' Presence Amps Up Feelings Of Both Fear And Safety

French soldiers patrol at Paris La Defense business district on Nov. 24, 2015 as part of security measures set following Nov. 13 Paris terror attacks.
Kenzo Tribouillard
AFP/Getty Images
French soldiers patrol at Paris La Defense business district on Nov. 24, 2015 as part of security measures set following Nov. 13 Paris terror attacks.

The funerals for the 130 victims of this month's Paris terrorist attacks have been held, and France mourned its victims in a national ceremony held at Paris' historic Les Invalides military hospital on Friday.

President Francois Hollande called them martyrs who had been killed because they were living the French ideals of liberty, equality and democracy. Hollande said a generation would be forever marked by the events of Nov. 13.

This week, the country goes back to the business of living, but there are visible changes to life now. For one, there's all the soldiers on the streets of Paris.

Standing on the busy corner where the Avenue Champs Elysees intersects with the Place de l'Etoile, Lt. Beaudoin has his assault rifle in ready mode as he watches the crowds of Parisians and tourists through a light drizzle. He hails from France's first parachute Hussar regiment, a storied military unit. His passion, he says, is jumping out of planes, but these days he walks the streets of Paris.

"I'm responsible for 25 soldiers, and we are helping the police provide security," says Beaudoin.

He says the Arc de Triomphe means something to French people because it's a national monument and has the tomb of the unknown soldier beneath it. Paris is a lovely city full of such symbolic places that could be a target for terrorists, he says.

For a professional soldier, says Beaudoin, there's no difference between serving at home or abroad.

"Our mission is to protect the population of Paris because they are vulnerable right now," he says. "And we are very proud to do this job."

After the attacks in January on the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and a Kosher supermarket, the number of soldiers deployed inside France jumped from 1,000 to 10,000. The country now has more forces serving on home soil than abroad.

Nowhere is this more evident than the streets around the capital, where nearly 7,000 soldiers are helping police reinforce the highest alert level.

Two French soldiers in front of the Arc de Triomphe.
Eleanor Beardsley / NPR
Two French soldiers in front of the Arc de Triomphe.

Pascal, a lance corporal who is not allowed to give his last name, goes over the patrol route itinerary with his men. This paratrooper regiment is based on the other side of the country, near the Pyrennees mountains, but the men were on the streets of Paris the morning after radical gunmen attacked cafes and a concert hall.

"Our job is to provide back up to police, says Pascal. "If we see someone behaving bizarrely, like sweating a lot or hesitating or carrying something suspicious, we follow them. We generally don't stop people and we don't have a specific profile we're looking for. Our mere presence has a dissuasive effect on any would-be terrorists."

Even though the contrast of these armed soldiers against the grand monuments and elegant streets of the French capital make for a great photo, you might want to think twice before you pull out your camera. A communications officer with the group gives a Chinese TV crew a dressing down for attempting to film them.

Yohann, a 22-year-old lance corporal also forbidden from providing his last name, has already served in two African countries. He says patrolling the streets of his own capital is a bit surreal.

"Yes, it is very strange to be in Paris because as a soldier, you sign up to serve abroad," he says.

The men of this regiment also patrol underground in the metro and vast network of suburban train lines that run under the Arc de Triomphe. They say people often come up to thank them.

Australian tourist Jennifer Davidson decided to maintain her trip to Paris, despite the attacks and she's glad she did. But she says she's still a little nervous taking the metro. And seeing all these soldiers in the City of Light is astonishing.

"It's kind of an oxymoron, because when you see them you know there's a security issue, but on the other hand, they make you feel safer," she says. "I don't mind seeing them about, and there are quite a few good sorts. As in good-looking! It's all good," she says with a laugh.

With France's state of emergency extended into next year, these soldiers are likely to be around for some time to come, reassuring tourists and Parisians alike.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.