The French military task force deployed domestically to fight terrorism is encountering several challenges.

By Adrien Morin

The Force Sentinelle, activated to protect the French national territory from the terrorist threat, has encountered several operational and legal challenges. While the French government passed a new bill on counterterrorism, we can only question the efficiency of this military task force in tackling domestic terrorism.

The Force Sentinelle is a military task force deployed on French territory following the Charlie Hebdo and Hypercasher terrorist attacks in January 2015. The Sentinelle Operation, integrated into the French national counterterrorism program called “plan Vigipirate”, is an adjustable plan calling for the deployment of over 10,000 soldiers (7,000 on average today) to secure, in collaboration with internal security forces, critical infrastructure and important mass gatherings, as well as to reinforce border controls.

The French population has an overall positive opinion of the operation, providing a political incentive for the French government to keep relying on this military task force to ensure its domestic security in the light of a persistent terrorist threat. However, beside its popularity, what is the real efficiency of the Force Sentinelle in combating terrorism in France?

The French domestic security historically ensured by internal security forces

First, even if military interior missions (MISSINT) are made possible by the French legislation, consisting primarily of the protection of the territory under the terms of the “plan Vigipirate”, and providing assistance to the population in times of natural disaster, their use has remained marginal until recently. Domestic security, including counterterrorism, has historically been ensured by domestic forces such as the Police Nationale (National Police) and the Gendarmerie Nationale. In fact, as Laurent Bonelli explains, France has, unlike many countries, developed a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy and legislation long before 9/11.

The French terrorism expert presents the 1986 law along with its 1992 and 1996 updates as the real backbone of the French counterterrorism legislation. These laws were later completed with the entry into force of additional legal texts, including the law of 3 June 2016, increasing the investigative capacities of judges and prosecutors. Within this legal framework, it is the various specialized departments of the Police Nationale that oversee the operational and intelligence missions related to counterterrorism on French territory. Today, these include  (names have changed over time) the Anti-Terrorism Sub-Directorate (SDAT), in charge of the prevention and repression of national and international terrorism, including terrorism financing; the Anti-Terrorist Coordination Unit (UCLAT), in charge of centralizing intelligence coming from the various counterterrorism agencies; and the General Directorate for Internal Security (DGSI), the main body in charge of gathering counterterrorism intelligence as well as monitoring dangerous groups and individuals.

A shift towards the military to respond to an increasing terrorist threat

The terrorist attacks that stroke France in 2015 have caused a national trauma, pushing the Socialist administration in office, to consider new measures to mitigate the terrorist threat. On 13 January 2015, Manuel Valls, then Prime Minister, declared in front of the French National Assembly, that “France is at war against terrorism”, hence following the doctrine set in motion in 2001 by American President George W. Bush. The next day, French President François Hollande invoked article 18 of the French Constitution, allowing for the nationwide implementation of the state of emergency. The Force Sentinelle became operational following the implementation of this emergency measure.

The newly elected President Emmanuel Macron reaffirmed his intention to pursue the mission of the Force Sentinelle shortly after taking office. For some French MPs, this nationwide military presence  has its merits as it reassures French citizen and tourists, in a country heavily relying on its tourism industry. In addition, no alternative is currently in place to supplant the Sentinelle Operation.

The limits of the Force Sentinelle in the prevention and the neutralization of the terrorist threat

For most of 2015, France only encountered minor terrorist incidents, but on November 13th, a coordinated attack in east Paris left 130 people dead and more than 350 injured. This night, the soldiers of the Force Sentinelle were unable to prevent the jihadi commando from carrying out the attack and did not play any leading role in neutralizing it. Indeed, the soldiers deployed in the French capital were not given the permission to intervene in the Bataclan theater where the major assault took place. The Research and Intervention Brigade (BRI) and the Search, Assistance, Intervention, Deterrence (RAID), two elite Special Forces of the Police Nationale, were ordered to neutralize the terrorists, with the assistance of the Anti-Crime Brigade (BAC), another police unit.

Similarly, the Force Sentinelle prove unable to prevent the Nice attack on 14 July 2016, which left 86 people dead and more than 430 injured. The terrorist was, there again, killed by policemen without the intervention of the military task force. It is obviously impossible to determine if terrorist attacks were avoided thanks to the implementation of the Sentinelle Operation, but these deadly terrorist attacks clearly show that a military presence on national soil is not sufficient to prevent large-scale terrorist operations.

This should not necessarily come as a surprise. Soldiers have a different legal status than domestic security forces, along with a different equipment (military forces are equipped with assault rifles when handguns are the norm for their domestic counterparts). Their action on national territory is strictly regulated. The domestic use of force by military personnel must be done according to the Criminal Code, a document gathering the legal texts defining various offenses and their applicable sanctions. According to this legislation, soldiers of the Force Sentinelle can only use force for the purpose of self-defense or in case of “extreme necessity”, when a threat is imminent and “if the deterrents made available to the military, other than firearms, have been exhausted or are ineffective.” From this perspective, we can better understand why soldiers from the military task force shot down these terrorists who directly assaulted them (after the attacks at the Louvre Museum or at Orly’s Airport in 2017 for instance), but largely left the initiative of intervening to the police forces during larger terrorist attacks.

The Force Sentinelle: an ideal target for terrorists

No military casualties have resulted from assaults against soldiers of the Force Sentinelle, but as a symbol of the state authority, they are an obvious target for terrorists. Although only the most severe aggressions make their way to the office of the Joint Chief of Staff, eight of these attacks were reported in 2015, nine in 2016, and seven so far in 2017. The most commonly used tactics are stabbing attempts and car ramming. The most severe attack happened on 9 August 2017, when a 36 year old individual drove his car into a military patrol in Levallois-Perret, leaving six soldiers injured, three of whom in serious condition.

In addition to these high-profile attacks, reports highlight that members of the Force Sentinelle must deal with dozens of minor aggressions every month, while the Ministry of Defense recorded no less than 1,300 incidents in the Paris area alone between January and September 2015.

In the light of these events, we could consider the deployment of the Force Sentinelle as a double-edge sword. On one hand it provides, by its presence, some psychological relief and a sense of security to the population, but on the other hand it may also give more incentive for potential terrorists to carry out opportunistic attacks against high-value targets.

Can France live up to its ambitions?

Official reports from the Ministry of Defense set the number of French military personnel to 202,964, with an operational reserve of 28,100 forces (numbers from 2015, not including civil personnel). The Armée de Terre (Land Force), the major actor involved in the Force Sentinelle, accounts for about half of this total, and the Sentinelle Operation mobilizes 15% of its operational forces. France is also one of the most active countries in the world in terms of international military interventions, being involved on various continents. The country possesses a permanent operational military force of more than 30,000 soldiers involved in foreign theaters. With a persistent threat coming from various jihadi groups in the African and Middle Eastern regions, French troops have been involved in high-intensity operations, particularly with the Serval and Barkhane Operations in the Sahel region, and the Chammal Operation in the Syria-Iraq area. Hurricane Irma which hit French territories in the West Indies also forced the French military to mobilize more than a thousand of its military personnel.

These operations have a cost. Jean-Yves Le Drian, former Minister of Defense, announced in November 2016 that French military operations brought an additional cost of 830 million euros that same year, compared to the previous one. The Sentinelle Operation accounted for 145 million of this total. The new administration has not planned to slow the pace of these military interventions. However, President Emmanuel Macron announced in July a 850 million euro cut to the defense budget (the overall budget reaching 32.7 billion euros for 2017, 1.78% of France’s GDP). Following this decision, Pierre de Villier, Joint Staff Chief of the French armed forces and highest ranking individual in the French military, resigned from his position, explaining that French military forces were already exploited at 130% of their capabilities. The government also announced that the defense budget would increase by 1.6 billion euros in 2018. However, this budget has been criticized for underestimating the real cost of France’s military operations. In short, the French president has yet to provide a clear explanation on how France intends to manage the overexploitation of its military personnel with the continuation of French international military interventions and the Sentinelle Operation.

The operational training along with the adaptation to a different operational and legal environment is also a major challenge for the soldiers of the Force Sentinelle. The efficient implementation of military operations on national soil requires specific training programs. In France, such programs can be completed in the Training Center for Urban Actions (CENZUB) and the Combat Training Center (CENTAC). However, as French MP François Lamy explained, due to the emergency of the situation following the terrorist attacks in 2015, and the necessity expressed by the government to quickly deploy a military task force, 70% of the specific training programs meant to be delivered in these centers could not be completed. This situation causes two problems. First, it forces soldiers to take part in a domestic counterterrorism operation with insufficient training. Second, by depriving them of this training, the Sentinelle Operation undermines the counterterrorism expertise of French troops in the long-term.

The perspectives of the new counterterrorism law

The newly elected French government, under the lead of Minister of Interior Gérard Collomb, proposed a new counterterrorism billwhich was voted by the French parliament and is entering into force on November 1st. While this bill seeks to exit the state of emergency and reinforce the French counterterrorism arsenal, it received intense criticism from both ends of the political spectrum. On the right, MPs affiliated to the party Les Républicains have argued that the law would weaken national security. On the left, politicians from the France Insoumise and communist parties claimed that the bill threatens freedom and the rule of law.

In short, the specificity of this new counterterrorism bill lies in the fact that it will institutionalize several elements which made the exceptionality of the state of emergency into common law. These include the right for security forces to resort to searches on people and vehicles in predefined “security zones” and the possibility for the Police Department to order the closing of places of worship. It will also increase capacities for French authorities to place people under house arrests and to carry out administrative searches in private homes. Additionally, the law will facilitate the surveillance and control of the population, pushing the political opposition to express concerns about the possible generalization of racial profiling.

In the meantime, this new law will not mark the end of the Sentinelle Operation. Gérard Collomb announced that the mission of the Force Sentinelle will be reformed, making it more “mobile.” In practice, half of the military personnel allocated to the task force will be used to protect critical locations on French territory, while the other half will have more flexibility to intervene where and when needed.

What future for a military task force in domestic counterterrorism?

The Force Sentinelle will pursue its mission on French territory but this leaves a lot of unresolved problems. The overexploitation of military resources, the lack of specific counterterrorism training, the opportunistic attacks carried out against soldiers, the operational and legal constraints imposed on military personnel when operating on national soil; all are major hindrances to the efficiency and effectiveness of the Force Sentinelle. Unfortunately, the government has not addressed these issues in its new counterterrorism law or through the upcoming reform of the military task force.

Elie Tenenbaum, researcher at the Institut Français des Relations Internationales (IFRI) also highlights the lack of coordination between internal security forces and the military. This is mainly because these two bodies historically operate under different environments, cultures, and chains of command. Moreover, internal intelligence (collected by internal security agencies) is subjected to the Criminal Code and must usually abide by the principle of confidentiality of investigations, making it legally and practically difficult for the military and the police to share intelligence. According to the French researcher, the absence of a “Joint Chief of Staff” to oversee domestic operations carried out jointly by internal security forces and the military is a major hurdle to improving their coordination.

In any case, a cost-benefit analysis of the Sentinelle Operation should at least push us to question its efficiency. France has a longstanding tradition of dealing with terrorism through its internal security forces, relying on a comprehensive counterterrorism legal framework. The terrorist threat in France is still very high in 2017, and the efforts deployed by Emmanuel Macron and his government to address this issue and adjust the French counterterrorism legislation are fully understandable. With the new law, internal security forces should be de jure given more flexibility when carrying out counterterrorism investigations, and the planned recruitment of 10,000 additional policemen over the next three years highlights the willingness of the President to put these forces at the heart of his counterterrorism strategy. However, caution should prevail when implementing new domestic security measures and the government must avoid fueling any feeling of discrimination based on people’s belonging to an ethnic or religious group. This is because the French society is already widely polarized by jihadi propaganda, populist discourses, xenophobic narratives and political skirmishes.

International cooperation in the age of globalization and especially regarding intelligence sharing should also be a central component of France’s efforts to tackle domestic terrorism.

Finally, if the military has a role to play in domestic counterterrorism, this role remains to be defined. A proper long-term strategic plan is still missing and the Force Sentinelle does not currently seem to bring any solid security guarantees to tackle domestic terrorism. For now, although rhetorics calling for “a War against Terrorism” can bring short-term political benefits, they are meaningless to address the security threat in the long run.

Cover Picture: a patrol of the Force Sentinelle in Strasbourg, 2015, © Claude Truong-Ngoc / Wikimedia Commons