French Emergency Management System: Moving Toward an Integrated Risk Management Policy Irmak Renda-Tanali, D. Sc. 1 & François Mancebo, Ph. D. 2 Introduction

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French Emergency Management System:

Moving Toward an Integrated Risk Management Policy
Irmak Renda-Tanali, D.Sc.1 & François Mancebo, Ph.D.2


The emergency management system in France is based on systematic risk assessment and risk management policies. These policies evolved mostly through European Union (EU) land use, environmental and industrial safety directives. Today, the European Union is moving towards becoming one nation with its social and economic systems including the possible adoption of one constitution. France acts as the leading EU nation that actively creates and enforces hazard risk management policies. The French emergency management system today is based on the notion that emergency management effectiveness needs the appraisal of social, economic and environmental risk acceptability by the public. This is achieved through examining casualties and damages from each and every major disaster, and learning and incorporating lessons from the failures into remedying policies. That does not mean, however that French emergency management system is perfect. There are lessons waiting to be learned and policies waiting to be improved.

This chapter explains the hazards that affect French mainland territories and how the emergency management policy evolved following some significant events.
Hazards and Vulnerabilities in France

The devastating French disasters are mainly climatic. Among them, floods are prevalent and have dramatic human and economic consequences. Floods have been the touchstone hazards that shaped emergency management policies in France as about one third of French mainland territory is subject to flooding risk. The second half of the 20th century has seen an elevated pattern of water-related disasters in France. The nature of these events changed from slow water risings of the rivers Louire and Seine, to highly destructive flashfloods in recently urbanized mountainous areas south of France. Another main natural hazard is the seismic activity involving the south-east of metropolitan French territory. More recently, in 2003, due to climatic changes, extensive heat waves caused massive number of deaths especially among the elderly people like never seen before.

On the other hand, France has historically been a target of Islamist terrorist events mainly bombing campaigns by outside terrorist organizations. However, there have been some frequent Corsican independent movement bombing events as well.

Attention to the significance of industrial hazards has heightened during the last few decades. There is a heightened awareness towards long-term chronic public health risks such as soil contamination stemming from resettlement on abandoned gas plant sites, and quarries and mines converted into toxic landfills. Part of this new interest in the form of new directives and regulations came due to the 2001 AZF fertilizer plant explosion in Toulouse, and later the 2002 Erika and 2003 Prestige Tanker oil spills (see the next section about these disasters).

France has also seen numerous transportation accidents in the air, on land and at sea. One notable one was the crash of a Concorde airplane in 2000 which resulted in 113 deaths. It resulted in the end of the Concorde and was major setback to the era of supersonic flight.

Over many decades throughout its existence, France has endured two world wars and numerous wide spread epidemic disasters that cost millions of deaths and economic consequences. France has certainly had its share of disasters.

Ordinarily, the inhabitants of a country with such a long history of disasters develop some risk awareness which results in local specific strategies to reduce vulnerabilities. It is not the case in France, where risk culture is rare and where —in contrast to the US—you can find nothing like strong neighbor communities except in deep rural areas. In France, people's sensitivity to risk is usually either too low or too excessive. However, French people have the ability to easily compare and balance vulnerabilities and the benefits they can have living in a dangerous environment, choosing rationally to expose themselves or not. It is a kind of paradox.

One reason for this irony may be due to the fact that disasters in France are responsible for only few casualties but large financial and social costs. To back up this argument, statistics show that between years 1980 and 2008, 21,533 people have been killed due to natural disasters. 19,490 of these casualties (about 90%) were in one year alone during the 2003 extreme heat waves. Only about 2% people have been killed from other natural disasters ( On the other hand, total economic damages per year amount to a whopping 1 billion US dollars in France ( See below for more statistics regarding French casualties according to type of disaster between years 1980 and 2008.

The History of Disasters

  • Historic earthquake disasters (Quenet, 2005):

    • 1644 Vésubie valley earthquake – 350 deaths

    • 1708 Manosque earthquake – 900 deaths

    • 1887 Nice earthquake- 12 deaths

    • 1909 Lambesc earthquake – 40 deaths

  • Flooding disasters:

    • Loire Valley Floods, in the years 1846, 1856, and 1866 caused extensive human and property damages as mentioned in Champion (1859).

    • Seine Valley Floods (1802, 1876 and 1910): The most severe event occurred in 1910. The rising of the Seine River after weeks of heavy rainfall drowned Paris under more than 8 m of water and had devastating social and economic consequences. Hundreds of thousands of people were temporarily left homeless. Political tensions and struggles between the classes were put aside by the citizens in order to help rebuild the city until the world wars devastated it again. Parisians learned the art of rebuilding and need for resilience after the 1910 flooding disaster.

Over decades, floods in France have changed from classical slow water risings of the Louire and Seine to highly destructive flashfloods in recently urbanized mountainous areas south of France. Examples of more recent large flooding incidents include Nimes (1988), Vaison-la-Romaine (1992), the Aude (1999), and the Gard in 2002. For example, on September 8, 2002, 670 millimeters of rainfall occurred in Gard which is equal to more than 50% of an entire year’s precipitation amount in just one day in that region, according to Feunteun et al (2000).

  • Terrorist events:

France is unique in terms of its distribution of territory. It can be divided into three separate geographical groups: the French continent, Corsica and DOM-TOM (overseas departments and territories). The French continent is 213,010 sq mi and consists of 65,000,000 inhabitants while Corsica is 3,351sq mi and 302,000 inhabitants and the DOM-TOM are collectively home to 2,625,000 inhabitants. As can be seen, geography plays a large role in French terrorism for both logistical and ideological reasons (Lafree, n.d.). Since 1980, terrorist acts perpetrated on French soil have come from three fairly distinct types of groups (Shapiro & Bénédicte, 2003):

(1) Home grown radical leftist groups who are ideologically committed to overthrow the capitalist and American-led imperialist system. Action Directe, the most prominent of these groups was active between 1979 to 1987 but later lost popularity and was eventually closed down by French authorities. The group carried out some 50 attacks on French government buildings, military installations and the government of Israel. They carried out robberies, or "proletarian expropriation" actions, and assassinations, one of which involved killing the manager of French arms sales in 1985. They were also accused of killing the then head of the French automaker Renault in 1986. Although they denied it during their trial two women members were charged with his murder in March 1987 and were sentenced to life imprisonment in 1989. Two other Action Directe members were convicted as accomplices and also sentenced to life imprisonment.

(2) Regional separatist groups that advocate independence or autonomy of certain regions such as Corsica, Basque Country, and Brittany. In general, separatist violence is one of the key themes in French terrorism. They are the most consistent and persistent perpetrator of terrorist actors (Shapiro & Bénédicte, 2003). Corsican independentist terrorists have been active by engaging in coordinated multi-site attacks known as “blue nights.” The Southwestern Basques also have been active; however, they do not play as big of a role as the Basques in Spain (LaFree, n.d.). These groups have evolved into criminal organizations, presenting an extremely difficult and challenging problem than that of purely politically motivated terrorism. Typical militant acts by the Fronte di Liberazione Naziunale Corsu (FLNC) are bombings, aggravated assault, armed bank robbery and extortion through ‘revolutionary taxes,’ and these actions are mostly aimed at public buildings, banks, touristic infrastructure, military buildings and other symbols of French control. Usually the attack is against buildings and infrastructure, and not against persons. The overwhelming majority of their attacks on the French mainland take place in or around the cities of Nice, Marseilles and Avignon.

(3) International terrorism which is overwhelmingly of Middle Eastern origin. Although French authorities had vast experience dealing with leftist and separatist terrorism in the past, they had little familiarity with transnational and international terrorism until the 1980s.

In the early 1980s, French policy in Middle East conflicted with policies of Syria, Iran, and Libya, the principal state sponsors of terrorism in the Middle East (see Shapiro & Bénédicte, 2003). These three regimes worked in concert with Palestinian and Lebanese networks in France to attack French interests to alter its policies in the Middle East. The most devastating one was the October 1983 suicide bombing of the French contingent of the multinational force in Lebanon that killed 58 French troops. A simultaneous attack killed 242 US marines (Shapiro & Bénédicte, p.73). Palestinian conflict inflicted against French targets was manifested in the series of attacks in Paris in 1986. At least 14 attacks caused 11 deaths and more than 220 injuries. These were claimed by a relatively unknown group called the Committee for Solidarity with Near Eastern Political Prisoners (CSPPA) (Shapiro & Bénédicte, p.71).

A notable terrorist attack was the Orly Airport attack on July 15, 1983 which involved the bombing of a Turkish Airlines check-in counter at Orly Airport in Paris, by the Armenian militant organization ASALA as part of its campaign for the recognition of and reparations for the Armenian massacres. The attack killed 8 people and injured 55 (New York Times, 1983). French authorities effectively eliminated the group within months after the attack.

Another terrorist wave started after the Algerian civil war. A radical terrorist group named Armed Islamic Group (GIA) rallied all of the Algerian Islamist movements under its banner and gathered external support from Islamists from Tunisia, Libya, and Morocco. This group spread its actions into French citizens by hijacking French consular agents in 1993 in Algiers, but soon the perpetrators were arrested by French authorities. GIA then hijacked an Air France flight from Algiers to Paris in the Christmas of 1994. The French commandoes assaulted the plane on the tarmac in Marseille, killing the hijackers. Documents found in London showed that the terrorists intended to crash the plane over Paris, probably into Eiffel Tower (Shapiro & Bénédicte, p.80). Between July and October of 1995, a wave of other attacks have been carried out by GIA that killed 10 and wounded over 150. Within four months, French authorities were able to roll up GIA.

  • Industrial accidents/events:

    • Montchanin waste disposal incident: An industrial waste landfill located within a residential area received 400,000 tons of toxic wastes between 1980 and mid 1988, in Montchanin, France. Triggered by odor nuisances caused by emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), intense local community concern led to the decision to close the site in 1988.

    • 2001 AZF fertilizer plant explosion in Toulouse: The explosion of this agrochemical plant resulted in 26 deaths and hundreds of casualties. The explosion blew up roofs and buildings as far as downtown Tolouise while a toxic cloud spread all over the conurbation. Due to prior planning based on earlier danger studies, warning, civil security and civil protection deployment and blockading of the roads, railways and airways were implemented successfully. However, the long term disaster recovery was not very well planned and it took many years to recover from the disaster.

    • 1999 Erika Tanker oil spill: The Erika tanker sank off the coast of France and the resulting oil spill impacted over 400 km of shoreline along five “departements” (local government areas) and the shoreline cleanup lasted more than two years. It is considered as one of the greatest environmental disasters of the world. More than 260,000 tons of oily waste was collected (Gouriou, 2003). The accident triggered new EU-legislation in terms of transport by sea.

    • 2002 Prestige Tanker oil spill: In 2002, the Prestige tanker sank off the Galician coast and the resulting oil spill impacted over 12 departements and caused great damage to fishing industry in Spain and France. Over 27,000 tons of waste was collected (Gouriou, 2003) and the estimated cost of the clean-up to the Galician coast alone is at €2.5 billion. Since the disaster, oil tankers similar to the Prestige have been directed away from the French and Spanish coastlines. Also, as a result, EU commissioners pushed for the ban of single-hulled tankers. The US and most other countries are phasing out single-hulled tankers by 2012.

  • Heat waves: In August of 2003, excessive heat caused more than 14,000 deaths in mainland France. The temperatures rose up to 104 °F and suffocated especially vulnerable people like the elderly and sick in a country where air conditioning is rare (USA Today, 2003). Victims often lived alone and died in their apartments. The number of deaths is attributed to a lack of information about the heat wave in the media and the isolation of the elderly in the French society.

Disaster Policy

In the past, France emergency management system strictly distinguished between natural hazards (e.g. floods, landslides, fires, volcanic activity, and earthquakes) and man-made hazards that involve risks produced by industrial, agricultural activities and transportation hazards. While this differentiation seemed convenient, it also proved unrealistic over time (see Mancebo and Renda-Tanali, 2009). When an incident causes a disruption, no matter the cause of occurrence, it may lead to other significant hazards in a cascading manner. Research and evidence has shown that it would be more feasible to manage complex risks as a whole system rather than managing them according to incident type (see for example Godart et al, 2002). Thus, as a result of several different disaster incidents during the past couple of decades, and with an additional push from the EU, French policy evolved from disaster-specific risk management approach into complex risks approach.

Also, until the beginning of the 1970s, French public policy had a ‘zero hazard’ dogma that was centered around the idea that as long as enough money is invested in disaster risk mitigation, it was possible to live in an all safe universe. This Promethean attitude was based partly on a self-assurance rooted in a post-World War II technical advancement and demagoguery. It was also what could be called ‘safety mongerism’ which proved unrealistic. Once again, EU directives with the harsh reality of numerous disasters (mainly floods) changed French policy (Cohen de Lara and Dron, 1998). Another accelerating factor for policy change was due to the 1970s oil embargo causing the abrupt ending of an incredibly prosperous period when there was money galore for everything.

A more pragmatic approach was brought about more recently which is based on the more notion that disasters cannot always be avoided. Therefore acceptable levels of risks are determined and disaster preparedness and recovery plans should be prepared around the accepted risks. Some of the specific milestones in French disaster policy are highlighted below.

Evolution of counter-terrorism policy

French capacity to fight terrorism has improved over years of hard-won lessons. France has a long history of terrorism that dates from the coining of the word during French revolution (Shapiro & Bénédicte, 2003, p.68). As a result of decades of terrorist waves from domestic to international perpetrators, France developed a fairly effective system for fighting terrorism at home that fits into French’s distinct civic culture. Other countries and, especially U.S., can benefit from French experience (as terrorism is a relatively new phenomenon for the U.S.).

Before the 1986 Palestinian terrorist attacks, France used the so-called sanctuary doctrine that attempted to isolate the country from international terrorism by creating a sanctuary both for and from international terrorists. This doctrine failed because the attacks created an anger in the public that made the idea of negotiating with or harboring terrorists politically risky. Later, as a result of foreign and intelligence policy changes (see the discussion below), the French remained largely free of international terrorist attacks on its home soil from 1987 until 1994 (Shapiro & Bénédicte, p.74). Historically, France struggled with two interrelated problems in its dealing with counterterrorism: a lack of coordination and centralization of anti-terrorist policies internally, and politicization of the struggle against terrorism. In the early 1980s, at least seven different police services in four different cabinet ministries had a variety of overlapping responsibilities relating to matters concerning terrorism. These agencies distrusted and misled each other, and sharing of intelligence was therefore made almost impossible. The then-president created an ad hoc counterterrorism cell within the Presidential Palace that only increased the tension and resentment among the already established agencies. Adding an overwhelming public outcry for increased security, in September 1986, after the devastating terrorist attacks (see the discussion under the history of disasters above) legislation was passed to create a variety of new organs within the government that specialized in dealing with terrorism and coordinated and centralized the activities. These organizations were created within the interior ministry (Unite de Coordination de la Luttle Anti Terroriste – SCLAT) which were tasked with making connections between all of the various intelligence and police services within the French government related to terrorism. According to Shapiro and Bénédicte (2003), this system was in part explicitly modeled on the US National Security Council and the interagency process it oversees. For a more detailed discussion on French anti-terror policies refer to Shapiro and Bénédicte (2003).
Evolution of natural hazards policy:

Natural hazards affect more than 50% of the French territory. Poor risk policies in sustainable local development planning and greater exposure of wealth in dangerous areas over the past 50 years have lead to increased losses in property and dozens of deaths. Understanding the hazards, French policymakers focused their risk mitigation policies around the following four spheres:

  1. Risk identification and preparing zoning and settlement strategies based on identified risks.

  2. Consideration of natural hazards as part of urban planning process.

  3. Eliciting input from residents.

  4. Preparation of emergency response and preparedness plans.

Related to the issues above, between 1935 and 1994, a large number of zoning instruments designed to control urbanization were developed (Dauge, 1999). However, they were conceived and adopted without any cohesiveness or coordination. The complexity and the disparateness among the policies prevented their proper implementation and use. To end this chaos, a law called “Loi Barnier’ (the name of the person that sponsored the bill) was issued by the French Congress in February of 1995 that replaced those discordant instruments with what is called a Major Risks Prevention Plan (Plan de Prévention des Risques Majeurs – PPR). PPR covers all types of natural hazards including avalanches, storms, forest fires, floods, landslides, earthquakes, and volcanic eruption. The plan was meant to be a flexible approach that would easily adopt to the needs of local, communal, and river basin authorities.

The PPRs are used to prevent new construction and other settlement activities in areas designated as dangerous and to regulate in less exposed areas. For example, to mitigate the effects of flooding, the spreading of agricultural land use is controlled by the local PPRs in order to diminish surface water runoff. Also the standard minimum first story heights are also specified in the local PPRs.

The communes (smallest French administrative division) are required to have their PPRs prepared according to the specifics of their region and approved. In fact, the procedure of having communal risk plans was established in April of 1994 even before the 1995 introduction of Loi Barnier. According to the 1994 legislation, French regional prefects are required to setup a structure in their département (French administrative district) called the Risk Analysis and Preventive Information Unit (Cellule d’Analyse des Risques et d’Information Préventive – CARIP). The role of CARIP is to assess the natural hazard risks to the community, decide on the hazard risk mitigation options, and impose and implement them. Towards this purpose, each commune in France has been required to prepare a synthetic document named Communal Information File on Major Risks (Dossier d’Information Communal sur les Risques Majeurs --DICRIM) to be added to the Departemental File on Major Risks (Dossier Départemental sur les Risques Majeurs – DDRM). DDRM is a final département level document worked out by CARIP. Both the DICRIM and DDRM are made available at the city halls of each département.

If there are several types of hazards that the commune is prone to, it is highly likely that it has a PPR and is in an approved status. (Note that DICRIM is compulsory to every commune – it is a kind of risk diagnosis. When some risks are determined to exist in a commune, then this commune has to create a PPR which defines the exposed areas and bring prohibitions or restrictions to constructions or activities in the exposed areas. PPR is a planning tool). However, those communes that are prone to only one type of natural hazard are likely not to have a PPR or a PPR that is in an approved status. According to Callon et al, in 2001, 26% of all of the French communes affected by four types of risks had a plan versus 6% of those affected by just one hazard. Moreover, the existence of PPR was directly proportional with a commune’s population: 35% of all of the communes with population of 20,000 to 100,000 inhabitants had a PPR, versus 6% of those with 100 to 500 and 3% with less than 100 inhabitants. This could be interpreted as: the more urbanized a commune is, the more is the risk of potential losses from hazards.

Additionally, in terms of PPR coverage, there has been a discrimination against the type of hazard. According to IFEN (Institut Français de l'Environnement –French Environmental Institute), in 1999, 36% of avalanche affected zones in France were covered by a PPR versus only 12% of those zones affected by landslides, and 11% of those affected by floods. Strangely enough, forest fires had not been covered in many PPRs. To illustrate the imbalance, 2001 statistics show that 11,699 French communes have flood risk; 6,038 have landslides; 5,189 earthquakes; 3,905 forest fires, and only 355 communes are prone to avalanche risk.

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