But while 79% of French people approve of Sentinelle in a country with a very positive view of its army, political opposition on the right and left has begun to question not the soldiers themselves but the government’s use of the military. Political commentators and ex-military figures have started to query whether deploying soldiers in what one rightwing senator called a mere security guard role is an efficient use of a highly trained – and now highly stretched – army.
The constant presence of camouflage uniforms everywhere from quiet neighbourhood streets to Métro carriages, patrolling past schools at home-time or milling through markets, has transformed the cityscape – and the relationship of the French to their soldiers. People now bring hot drinks and food offerings to men in military fatigues at the end of their street. The elite troops of the foreign legion are invited into a barmitzvah in a street of synagogues that they normally guard. There are now military medals for serving on the streets of French towns and many more young people applying to join the army.
“It’s quite hard to know what to tell children already traumatised and confused by the terrorist attacks,” said the concierge at one central Paris building in a neighbourhood where soldiers are regularly posted. “My five-year-old daughter would shush me and try to hide whenever she saw a soldier. I asked her why. ‘They’re the killers!’ she said. I told her they weren’t at all, but she just replied: ‘But they’ve got guns!’”