A Tense Paris Gets Overrun By Soldiers

January 13, 2015  

Troops marching through Jewish districts and foreign legionnaires patrolling grimly under the arches of the Eiffel Tower – Paris is witnessing a rare deployment of armed forces on home soil after last week’s terror attacks.

In the Marais district in central Paris – home to many Jewish homes, restaurants and businesses – the road appeared calm on Tuesday.

Then suddenly a phalanx of soldiers came pouring out of a doorway, assault rifles in hand and hulking backpacks over their shoulders, equipped as if they were in the Malian desert rather than a chic shopping district in the heart of the city.

The doorway led to a Jewish school where two rabbis were chatting. “It’s very peculiar that the army should be here, it proves we are facing real danger,” said one, Eliezer Wolf, visiting from Amsterdam.

“It’s clear the main target is Jewish schools. We even heard that the person who attacked the kosher supermarket initially wanted to attack a school,” he said, referring to the hostage-taking at a kosher supermarket in another district of Paris last Friday that left four Jews murdered.

A few teenagers appeared at the door. “It really reassures us to see soldiers – it’s better than just police,” said one of them before being ushered back inside by the rabbi.

Another teenager was chatting good-naturedly with one of the troops on the other side of the road. Asked if it was strange to be deployed in his own capital, a soldier said: “it makes no difference to me. We got a good welcome here.”

Over the top?

Others in the area felt the deployment may be a bit “over the top,” despite the string of attacks on three consecutive days that left 17 dead.

“It doesn’t reassure – it depresses me more than anything else,” said Omar Mouazzani, 28, walking his dog. “Of course what has happened is difficult and not pleasant but all this is a bit over the top.”

A plaque above a nearby clothing store is a reminder that the threats to Jews in Paris is nothing new. It recalls the attack in August 1982 on what was then the Goldenberg restaurant that left six dead and 22 wounded.

France announced an unprecedented deployment of 10,000 troops Monday, and nearly 5,000 police at Jewish schools and synagogues.

The authorities are also keen to calm tourists, with troops circling various landmarks on Tuesday, including the famed Champs Elysees shopping boulevard and the Arc de Triomphe.

Four soldiers serving with the French foreign legion were walking with rifles at the ready, scanning the crowds under the Eiffel Tower.

“We’re here to keep a watch on things, to keep these areas secure,” said one of them briefly, before excusing himself to continue their patrol.

For tourists in Paris, the world’s most visited city – and a place normally associated with romance rather than heavily armed troops – the
atmosphere was strange but reassuring.

“We’ve seen a lot of military,” said Roos Roosenboom, 36, visiting from the Netherlands with his wife. “It feels a bit hectic, but it’s a big city so I guess we could easily hide if anything happened,” he joked.

Others say they are still shaken by the events of the past week and grateful for the added sense of protection.

“I’ve been here since Wednesday – it’s been really nerve-wracking and I’ve felt extremely touched by the events. I’ve seen a lot of troops and armed police and it makes me feel safe. It’s good to know they are on the watch,” said Tatiana, a 34-year-old from El Salvador, as she emerged from the Notre Dame cathedral.

But back in the rue des Rosiers in the Marais, the most renowned Jewish street in the city, a young man promising “the best falafel in the world” put a pessimistic spin on the security efforts.

“If someone wants to do something, nothing can stop them,” he said. “The first cop or soldier on the scene will go down with the others.”

AFP contributed to this report.

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