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

<i>CNN</i><br/>Siren loudspeakers can be seen in the tower of Maison Laffitte's town hall.
Siren loudspeakers can be seen in the tower of Maison Laffitte's town hall.

Camille Knight and Elias Lemercier, CNN

It’s a typical Wednesday lunchtime in Paris, the streets buzzing with tourists, terraces packed with tables, when the wail of an air raid siren fills the air.

Its groan tears across the city for nearly two minutes, reaching a crescendo above the midday traffic before dying away.

It’s a strange occurrence. But what’s stranger still is that aside from a few confused tourists, no one seems to notice.

In France, on the first Wednesday of every month, sirens — initially envisaged as Cold War bombing warnings — let rip as a test of the alarms in some 2,000 towns and villages across the country.

Today they stand as warnings of natural or industrial disasters but with war raging in Europe’s east, French authorities have issued statements to remind the French that the 1 minute 41 seconds of sky-splitting wail is just a drill.

“Surely if there was a war on, we would have seen it in the news or something,” says Ali Karali, a tourist from London, as he heard the siren this month outside Paris’ Notre Dame.

“I thought it might be important, but if it were, people don’t seem to care,” he told CNN.

Surprise isn’t limited to visitors though.

“It’s not uncommon that the prefecture receives calls from individuals, locals or tourists, who are concerned about the siren,” said Matthieu Pianezze, head of the interdepartmental service of defense and civil protection in Yvelines, a region west of Paris.

“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

The sirens heard today can be traced back as far as the Middle Ages. Since that time, it has been the administration’s responsibility to signal any incident that could physically threaten the population.

One of the most common bells used at the time was known as the “tocsin,” found in churches and sounded by priests to alert populations of danger.

In 1914, the bells were rung for over an hour in a number of towns to alert as many people as possible of the outbreak of the First World War.

After World War II, sirens took over and were set up to warn of potential aerial threats. Their deployment was accelerated during the Cold War and they can now be heard across France.

In Maison-Laffitte, a town of around 23,000 residents in the western suburbs of Paris, the main siren is located on the roof of the town hall. Only policemen have access to the siren and the town hall employees get front row seats to its roar.

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

The way they work is relatively straightforward. “The agents of the prefecture can activate it via an app that is quite easy to access,” says Pianezze. “This monthly test allows us to see which of our 47 sirens are ‘sick’ and have to be taken to the doctor. We have to get them fixed as soon as possible for them to be ready in case of a real emergency.”

An archaic system?

Many have questioned the efficacy of this decades-old warning system. “France has chosen to keep the sirens because there is a certain heritage, a tradition behind it,” says geography professor Johnny Douvinet of the Université d’Avignon.

As an expert in population alert systems, he explains that it was former President Charles de Gaulle who ordered the current system and that “despite the various changes within the interior ministry, the priority given to the siren as means of alert has always been maintained up 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 almost a century ago.

“It would affect me a lot during the war because they rang every time there was a bombardment so that we could go underground for protection.” Now, she feels they have lost their meaning. “I don’t really see the point anymore,” she says.

But given today’s geopolitical happenings, Douvinet points out that the return of war on European territory may have refreshed the public’s thinking about the sirens.

“The war in Ukraine has shown that maybe the sirens aren’t 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 council wants to double down on risk and crisis management,” Yvelines civil protection chief Pianezze said.

Sign of the times

Even so, calls for changing the system, which some say is outdated, have been growing.

In 2019, a chemical factory caught fire one night in Rouen in northwestern France, and a cloud of black smoke enveloped the town. The choice was made to use the sirens as a secondary alert measure, and to only trigger two of them a few hours after the start of the fire, to warn people once they had woken up in the morning.

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

In an address to the government after the fire, Normandy region prefect Pierre-André Durand said that he thought the system had much room for improvement, and that, “We can’t manage 21st century crises with a 20th century tool.”

Going digital

Durand’s wishes could come true this June because the sirens are paired up with a new, modernized system: France is testing out “amber alert”-style cell phone messages.

If effective, they should be rolled out nationwide by the summer. Though similar systems are already in place across Europe and in the US, this technology is innovative, according to Matthieu Pianezze, as it combines cell broadcast and location-based SMS technologies.

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

“It can be tourists who are just visiting the Yvelines area for example,” Pianezze said.

“Imagine at the Palace of Versailles, where there are lots of tourists, they would all receive an alert. And possibly in a variety of languages too.”

That does not mean the end for the old school siren. They are here to stay and will simply serve a more complementary role in cases of emergency.

“It still allows you to reach quite large areas,” adds Pianezze. ”You’ve 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 that we are attached to it because it has an efficiency that is proven, obviously not 100%, but it is still an efficiency historically linked to crises or the war in France.”

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

So next time you visit France and you’re caught in what sounds like an air raid, keep calm and remember it’s probably just the start of the month.

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