Laid-back measures due for shake-up

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The Independent Online
Since Monday, for the first time in years, pedestrians have been able to walk past the main entrance of the Elysee Palace, and pause to look at the ceremonial guard in the courtyard. Before, the police had politely invited people to cross to the other side of the road, writes Mary Dejevsky.

Yesterday afternoon, less than 24 hours after the bomb at St- Michel station, the new arrangements were still in force. They had been introduced on President Jacques Chirac's instructions, apparently at the instigation of his PR adviser and daughter, Claude.

The relaxation of overt security outside the Elysee was part of a general simplification of ceremony that was ordered by Mr Chirac when he came to office. The same exercise included the abolition of the special fleet of aircraft, the ban on government cars using flashing lights, and a reduction in the convoy accompanying the President when he leaves the Elysee.

Even before the Chirac simplification drive, however, attitudes towards security in France seemed distinctly relaxed.Throughout the presidential election campaign, for instance, it was invariably possible to follow the candidates, including the then prime minister, and their teams, on production of a personal card, or at most, the card of your news organisation. Almost no one asked for any further proof of identity. At the stadiums and hotels where the candidates held rallies and conferences, there was only one occasion - Mr Chirac's youth rally in Paris - when security was in evidence.

The only places (except airports) where you regularly have to pass through an X-ray machine are at the parliament buildings and (sometimes) the Foreign Ministry. With a press card, you can enter most ministries, the Prime Minister's offices and often the Elysee. Security at the British and United States embassies is infinitely more rigorous; in the Parisian context, it always seemed a reminder of a different age - maybe no longer.

General security is similarly relaxed. Cars and vans park almost anywhere. Only the streets around the Elysee seem to be no-go areas for parking. Left-luggage offices function at every railway station. No checks seems to be made on the bags that are deposited.

Of the many hotels I have used in France, I have had to register in only a few. At mainline stations and in airport lounges, people happily leave their luggage unguarded while browsing or having coffee. I have been roundly told off at Heathrow for straying only a few feet from my bags.

But it is hard to see how even the most draconian security measures could have prevented Tuesday's bomb. About 45,000 people use St-Michel station each day. How can you control who enters and leaves a Metro station without crippling the public transport system? But, perhaps more awareness of security will follow the atrocity.