World First Look

Louvre knife attacker thwarted by controversial military patrol

The troops were part of Operation Sentinelle, whose value as a security force is often questioned, though some see it as reassuring.

Armed police officers patrol in the courtyard of the Louvre museum near where a soldier opened fire on a machete-wielding man in Paris, Feb. 3.
Christophe Ena/AP | Caption

French soldiers on patrol near the Louvre Museum in Paris were attacked on Friday by a machete-wielding man, according to a police union official.

Four soldiers at first tried to fight him off before opening fire, hitting him five times and gravely wounding him, the Associated Press reported. One of the soldiers was slightly injured on his scalp. 

Checks of the man’s backpacks did not turn up explosives. He was said to have shouted “Allahu akbar,” Arabic for “God is great,” before the attack.

The incident is likely to jangle nerves in a country where anxieties about attacks from Islamic extremists are still running high. And it comes at an inauspicious time for the city's 2024 Olympic hopes: the news came just hours before officials hosted a ceremony near the Eiffel Tower to mark the formal submission of their bid to host the Games.

But the targets of the attack are likely to call attention to a particular feature of the French government’s response to the attacks of the past two years: the deployment of the military in cities across the country.

“The now permanent presence of thousands of soldiers in khaki across the capital and major cities has transformed the image and mood of France,” wrote The Guardian in an April profile.

Opération Sentinelle, as the patrol is known, sends troops to religious and cultural sites as well as schools and metro stations. Many see their presence as reassuring – at the very least, as a means of giving tourists and others the perception of security.

“We like them, we’re happy to see them,” one bar owner told the newspaper at the time. “They’re part of the decor. They reassure tourists, and we lost a lot of tourists after the attacks.”

Others are less convinced about the effectiveness of the deployment, which cost the government $340 million in 2015. Sebastian Roche, a security researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research at Sciences Po Grenoble, told the Associated Press in May that he saw little chance that the army would stop an attack unless it stumbled upon it, adding that army and police forces had no experience of coordinating and very different rules of engagement.

"I don't see the benefit really," he told the AP.

During last November’s massacre in Paris, according to police union official Jean-Luc Taltavull, one soldier refused to join a policeman attempting to storm the Bataclan, since he hadn’t received orders to do so.

"The government is scared," Mr. Taltavull told the news service. "They're scared to be blamed for not having done something."

It is still unclear what the intent of Friday's attack might have been, though anti-terrorism prosecutors have taken charge of the investigation.

The attacker reportedly pulled out a machete and attacked several soldiers after he was prohibited from entering a shopping mall beneath the museum bearing two backpacks.

Four soldiers at first tried to fight off the man before opening fire, the Associated Press reported. 

Immediately after the attack, employees at a Louvre-area restaurant complex were evacuated, and visitors to the museum were herded into safe areas without windows.

But within three hours, the city was going back to business, with police removing barricades and yellow tape around the Louvre while French radio returned to talk about the weather and traffic.

This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.