As I drove innocently along the main street of Saint-Antonin, I saw the distinctive blue coachwork and white stripes of a gendarmerie van. I knew with horrible inevitability that they would stop me. Sure enough, one stepped into the road, held up his hand and motioned me into the space their previous customer had just vacated. Although I hadn’t done anything, I immediately felt guilty, as you do.
This was only the third time in my long relationship with France that the gendarmes have stopped me: once on holiday, twice while we have lived here.
The first time was in the 1990s for a breathalyser test. This was at 11.30 am, so the likelihood that I had been drinking was slim. The officer in charge took a while to realise that, being a British car, the driver (me) was on the right. I duly blew into the bag, the gendarme pronounced me alcohol-free and waved me on.
The SF tells me that when he lived in Limoges in the 1970s, the date and location of police alcohol checks was posted in advance in the local paper.
On the second occasion, we were flagged down on our way to the Auvergne. This was an identity check. And check they did. Everything. They went around the car and looked at the tyres and insurance tag and demanded driving licence, carte grise (registration document), cartes de séjour and passports.
The gendarmes took our cartes de séjour to their waiting van, presumably to run a computer check. We waited what seemed like hours before they finally returned them and said we could go.
Guilty or not?
The latest check was more cursory.
I brought the car to a halt, thankfully without colliding with anything, and slid down the window.
“Bonjour, Madame,” said Gendarme No. 1. “Gendarmerie nationale,” he added, which seemed somewhat superfluous.
“May I see your driving licence?”
I explained that it was in my handbag, which was in the boot for security reasons.
“Do you have a French licence?” My accent always gives me away.
“Oui.” I handed over the flimsy paper version we were issued in 1998, and he proceeded to examine it.
Meanwhile, the Gendarme No. 2 was tapping away on his mobile phone.
“Who is the owner of this vehicle?”
I told him, and it was obviously the right answer.
“C’est bon,” Gendarme No. 1 said, handing back my licence.
“C’est bon?” replied Gendarme No. 2, frowning.
I had a brief flash of anxiety that they were going to cart me off to the local nick. However, they said that everything was in order. They even stopped the traffic and waved me out of the space. I prayed that I wouldn’t run over their feet or drive on the wrong side of the road and made my getaway.
You don’t often see gendarmes around here, since they have a large area to patrol. Even during lockdowns, we saw them only once, when they patrolled our lane. We never got to hand over the form that we had to complete painstakingly every time we ventured beyond our gates.
Police in France
There are three categories of police in France, Police nationale, Gendarmerie nationale and Police municipale. I was never quite clear about the difference between the first two, but my recent experience prompted me to find out more.
The Police nationale are civil servants employed by the Ministère de l’Intérieur. Their sphere of competence is basically large towns and cities with more than 20,000 inhabitants. They don’t live onsite, unlike gendarmes. Their origins date back to the early 19th century.
The Gendarmerie nationale are military personnel under the administrative authority of the Ministère de l’Intérieur but with additional military responsibilities from the Ministère des Armées. The name is a shortened version of “gens d’armée“. They police suburban areas, towns and villages of less than 20,000 inhabitants and rural areas. Normally, they live in the local gendarmerie barracks. Their origins date back to the Middle Ages.
The two forces’ responsibilities are mostly similar. As you might imagine, the existence of two separate police forces has sometimes led to tension and competition. Their separate organisation is, presumably, historical. A merger has often been considered but never implemented.
The third category is Police municipale. They are civil servants employed directly by a commune, or a group of communes. The Police municipale assist maires to maintain public order and oversee the application of bylaws. They often have urban traffic control duties and supervise local events such as markets, fairs and public ceremonies. Our village doesn’t have its own Police municipale, presumably because there isn’t enough for them to do.
If you have read Martin Walker’s Dordogne Mysteries, you’ll recall that Bruno, the hero, is a policier municipal. It seems to me, though, that his fictional role goes well beyond the reality, but there wouldn’t be much of a story if it didn’t.
There is a wide range of slang nicknames for police and gendarmes: un flic (more commonly used in the plural), un poulet (chicken) and un perdreau (partridge) being among the popular ones.
The relationship between the police and the public in France has often been fraught. As in other countries, there are many reasons for this, including increasing centralisation of the police and the corresponding decline in neighbourhood policing, inconsistent government policies, historical mutual mistrust and radical changes in society: a complex web of causes that is difficult to untangle.
The police have a very difficult job, but sometimes they don’t do themselves any favours. Living out here, we are shielded from much of this, of course. And “my” gendarmes were unfailingly courteous. I saw no reason to behave otherwise in return. I even thanked them before driving off.
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