Paris (CNN) — It’s a typical Wednesday noon in Paris, the streets buzzing with tourists, the terraces crowded with tables, when the howl of an air raid siren fills the air.
Its moan cuts through town for nearly two minutes, reaching a crescendo above the midday traffic before fading away.
It is a strange event. But what’s even weirder is that apart from a few confused tourists, no one seems to notice.
In France, on the first Wednesday of every month, sirens – originally thought to be Cold War bombing warnings – went off to test alarms in some 2,000 towns and villages across the country.
Today they pose as warnings of natural or industrial disasters, but with war raging in Eastern Europe, French authorities have issued statements to remind French people that the 1 minute 41 seconds of searing moans are just an exercise.
“If there had been a war, we would have seen it in the news or something,” says Ali Karali, a London tourist, as he heard the siren this month outside Notre Dame de Paris.
“I thought it might be important, but if it was, people don’t seem to care,” he told CNN.
The surprise is not limited to visitors, however.
“It is not uncommon for the prefecture to receive calls from individuals, residents or tourists, who are worried about the siren,” said Matthieu Pianezze, head of the interministerial service for defense and civil protection of the Yvelines.
“Obviously, 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 installed throughout France after World War II to warn of Cold War bombings.
Archives Hulton/Getty Images
The sirens heard today date back to the Middle Ages. Since then, it is the responsibility of the administration to report any incident that could physically threaten the population.
One of the most commonly used bells at the time was known as the “tocsin”, found in churches and rung by priests to alert people to danger.
In 1914, the bells rang for more than an hour in several towns to alert as many people as possible to the outbreak of the First World War.
After World War II, sirens took over and were put in place to warn of potential aerial threats. Their deployment accelerated during the Cold War and they are now heard throughout France.
In Maison-Laffitte, a town of around 23,000 inhabitants in the western suburbs of Paris, the main siren is located on the roof of the town hall. Only the police have access to the siren and the employees of the town hall have a front row seat for its roar.
“It works well, don’t you think? says Deputy Mayor Gino Necchi, as the siren goes off.
Their way of working is relatively simple. “Prefectural agents can activate it via a fairly easy-to-access application,” says Pianezze. “This monthly test allows us to see which of our 47 sirens are ‘sick’ and need to be taken to the doctor. We need to get them repaired as soon as possible so they are ready for a real emergency.”
An archaic system?
Stéphane Mollet, technician at the town hall of Maison Laffitte, opens a cabinet containing an electronic alert.
Many have questioned the effectiveness of this decades-old warning system. “France has chosen to keep the mermaids because there is a certain heritage, a tradition behind them”, explains geography professor Johnny Douvinet from the University of Avignon.
As an expert in public alert systems, he explains that it was former President Charles de Gaulle who commissioned the current system and that “despite the various changes within the Ministry of the Interior, the priority given to the siren as a means of alert has always been maintained to this day.”
Not everyone agrees on their usefulness. The sound of the siren is familiar to Jacqueline Bon, 92, who was a teenager during World War II. But hearing them regularly “has absolutely no effect on me,” she says, even though the sound is the same as it was nearly a century ago.
“It would affect me a lot during the war because they would ring every time there was a bombardment so we could go underground to protect ourselves.” Now she feels they have lost their meaning. “I don’t really see the point anymore,” she says.
But given today’s geopolitical events, Douvinet points out that the return of war to European territory may have refreshed public thinking about sirens.
“The war in Ukraine showed that sirens may not be as useless as people thought,” he says. “One thing is clear, when something happens people want to be informed and alerted.”
After Covid-19 and with major events like the Rugby World Cup in 2023 and the Olympic Games in 2024 on the horizon, “The municipality wants to redouble its efforts in risk and crisis management”, declared the head of the civil protection of Yvelines, Pianezze.
sign of the times
Despite everything, calls to change the system, which some describe as outdated, are increasing.
In 2019, a chemical factory caught fire one night in Rouen, in northwestern France, and a cloud of black smoke enveloped the city. The choice was made to use sirens as a secondary alert measure, and to trigger only two a few hours after the start of the fire, to warn people as soon as they wake up in the morning.
In the meantime, it is through Twitter and the news media that the authorities have chosen to communicate.
In an address to the government after the fire, the prefect of the Normandy region, Pierre-André Durand, said he believed the system had a lot to do and that “we cannot manage the crises of the 21st century with a tool of the 20th century”.
Equipment controlling the warning system.
Durand’s wishes could come true in June because the sirens are coupled with a new modernized system: France is testing messages on mobile phones of the “orange alert” type.
If effective, they should be rolled out nationwide by the summer. Although similar systems are already in place in Europe and the United States, this technology is innovative, according to Matthieu Pianezze, because it combines cell broadcasting and location-based SMS technologies.
This means that everyone in a given area, regardless of their cellular network or phone, will receive an alert from the authorities.
“It can be tourists who are just visiting the Yvelines region for example,” said Pianezze.
“Imagine at the Palace of Versailles, where there are a lot of tourists, they would all receive an alert. And maybe also in several languages.”
That doesn’t mean the end of the old-school siren. They are here to stay and will simply play a more complementary role in an emergency.
“It still allows you to reach fairly large areas, adds Pianezze. You have seen the power of the siren and I think it’s very important to be able to maintain things that are already established. I think we are committed to it because it has proven effectiveness, obviously not 100%, but it is still an effectiveness historically linked to the crises or the war in France.
Tradition has a special place in France, and mermaids are no exception.
So the next time you visit France and get caught up in what looks like an air raid, stay calm and remember that it’s probably only the start of the month.