On Nov. 19, an extraordinary warning of the possibility of a "chemical or bacteriological" terrorist attack in France was solemnly delivered by Prime Minister Manuel Valls to a packed National Assembly. Coming less than a week after a series of coordinated attacks took 130 lives and a day after an early-morning raid killed the Islamic State operative believed to have organized the Nov. 13 attacks and who seems to have been able to slip undetected into and out of the European Union's "Schengen Area," the announcement is being taken seriously be many commentators.  --  The president of the National Federation of French Firefighters took the occasion to review France's preparedness to respond to such an attack in the pages of Le Monde (Paris).[1]  --  A complete translation is posted below....


By Eric Faure

Le Monde (Paris)
November 20, 2015


What is the danger of an attack perpetrated, according the specialists' euphemism, with "unconventional" means?  Prime Minister Manuel Valls did not try to hide the risk of an attack with "chemical or bacteriological arms" on Thurs., Nov. 19, in his speech to the National Assembly on the extension of the state of emergency:  "Nothing can be ruled out today.  I say this, of course, with all the precautions necessary, but we know it and are thinking about it.  There may also be the risk of chemical or bacteriological weapons," he said to a nearly full chamber.

By referring to the hostile use of products and substances that are as dangerous as they are terrifying, this threat is obviously to be taken seriously.  The sarin gas attacks of Tokyo in 1995, the use of chemical arms in certain countries of the Middle East -- Syria and Iraq --, the use of chemical products for terrorist ends shows that we have to be able to face potential attacks of this sort.

These threats were already taken into account by the highest state authorities at the beginning of the 1990s.  The global response, coordinated by state agencies, rests on the preparation of operational plans, the reinforcement of the ability to respond with human and technical means (detection, protective garb, way of decontaminating...), the organization of specific inter-agency courses and training.  These take place beneath the aegis of a national training center that is shared by all the agencies that might be mobilized:  the army, mine removal services, hospital services, firefighters, police and gendarmes, etc.

The means already deployed over the whole of the territory rely on, among others, 248,000 firefighters, as well as 11,700 physicians, pharmacists, and nurses, and their 6,210 emergency vehicles for coming to the aid of victims.  To these means are added specialized teams:  chemical intervention cells (116), radiological and nuclear intervention cells (48), and decontamination units (70).  This operational technological force can also be reinforced by "detection, identification, and sampling" vehicles.   Veritable mobile laboratories, these allow for on-site identification of a toxic product, the determination of the strategy to apply, and the therapeutics to utilize.  Today more than 20,000 firefighters have been trained to confront one or several of these risks.  They are ready to reinforce their first-responder colleagues who are unspecialized but who have all been trained to look out for an attack of this kind and to take first steps in an emergency. 

These resources, which are reassuring logical steps to put in place, are not in themselves something new.  They are the result of risks that have long existed.  They were developed during the atomic fears of the Cold War.  They have been installed with the advent of chemical and nuclear industries.  Thus society's consciousness of its obligation to protect from these risks is longstanding, is anchored in the responsibility of political decision-makers, and is put in action by personnel on the ground.  One figure just published demonstrates vividly how current the risks are:  each year in France, nearly 50,000 interventions implicating toxic, biological, or nuclear products are carried out by firefighters after accidents, on industrial sites, or during the transport of these substances.

As diverse as these products are, they and their consequences are known, and so are the appropriate responses to them.  But we have to recognize that their use by terrorists would undeniably present an unprecedented challenge, especially because of the number of potential victims, since that would be the objective of those carrying out the attack.

This threat has been integrated into preparation for COP 21, as it was for the commemorations of the anniversary for the Normandy landings and as it will be for Euro 2016 [NOTE:  The European soccer championship to be held in June-July 2016 involving matches held in ten different French cities.  --M.K.J.].  Each sizeable event is concerned.  The collective work of the army, health system, and operational services has, for example, resulted in access to antidotes to the effects of chemical arms on human beings.  Only a few days ago, in Lens, a major exercise was held that involved all who would be intervening within the framework of a terrorist scenario envisaging chemical products used on a large public gathering.  Given the multitude of scenarios that can be imagined, adaptability must be the rule.  Public authorities do not have only a single system of response.  It must indeed be modular, multiform, and adapted to events.

The management of the terrorist attack is the responsibility of police and gendarmerie units, but responsibility for assistance and first aid to victims and those involved in a hostile setting of whatever form belongs first of all to the firefighters who coordinate all public and private means under the authority of the préfet.  Firefighters will be in the front line due to the territorial mesh that they maintain, a mesh that has long been tested to respond to both day-to-day and extraordinary risks.  This proximity will be a key factor in early detection for D-Day, which we cannot be sure will never come.

We must beware both of institutional catastrophism and excessive optimism:  what is required is lucidity.  The situation will of course require means and capabilities, but what it will require most of all is rigor and good sense.  And it is on these that every life saved may depend.

--Eric Faure is the president of the Fédération nationale des sapeurs-pompiers de France ['National Federation of French Firefighters'].

Translated by Mark K. Jensen
Associate Professor of French
Department of Languages and Literatures
Pacific Lutheran University
Tacoma, WA 98447-0003
Phone: 253-535-7219
Webpage: www.plu.edu/~jensenmk/
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.