The French police

Structure and organization

The French police

There are three main police forces in France: the police nationale, the gendarmerie nationale and the Compagnie Républicaine de la Sécurité ( CRS). French policemen are addressed formally as monsieur/madame l’agent and colloquially called flics (cops), although there are many less polite names. The police nationale are under the control of the Interior Ministry and are called agents de police.

They deal with all crime within the jurisdiction of their police station ( commissariat de police) and are most commonly seen in towns, distinguished by the silver buttons on their uniforms. At night and in rain and fog, they often wear white caps and capes.

The gendarmerie nationale/gardes-mobiles is part of the army and under the control of the Ministry of Defence, although it’s at the service of the Interior Ministry. Gendarmes wear blue uniforms and traditional képis, and are distinguished by the gold buttons on their uniforms. They deal with serious crime on a national scale and general law and order in rural areas and are responsible for motorway patrols, air safety, mountain rescue, and air and coastal patrols. Gendarmes include police motorcyclists ( motards), who patrol in pairs. The 3,600 brigades of gendarmes are to be linked into groups of three or four to improve law enforcement in rural areas.

The CRS is often referred to as the riot police, as it’s responsible for crowd control and public disturbances, although it also has other duties, including life-saving on beaches in summer. Over the years the CRS has acquired a notorious reputation for its violent response to demonstrations ( manifestations) and public disturbances, although often under extreme provocation. The mere appearance of the CRS at a demonstration is enough to raise the temperature, although it has been trying to improve its public image.

Municipal police in France

In addition to the three kinds of police mentioned above, most cities and medium-size towns have a municipal police ( police municipale/corps urbain), which deals mainly with petty crime, traffic offences and road accidents, and there’s a general movement in favour of ‘neighbourhood policing’ ( îlotage) throughout France. Municipal policemen traditionally wore a képi (like gendarmes), although this has been replaced by a flat, peaked cap. While officers of the gendarmerie nationale, the police nationale and the CRS are armed, police municipale aren’t, unless the local préfet and maire decide that they should be.

There are also various special police forces, including the Groupement d’Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale ( GIGN), a sort of SAS unit; the Police de l’Air et des Frontières ( PAF), border guards; the Direction Centrale des Renseignements Généraux ( DCRG or RG), the ‘intelligence’ squad; the Police Judiciaire ( PJ), the criminal investigation department; Surveillance du Territoire ( SDT), a counter-espionage division; an anti-terrorist unit called Recherche, Assistance, Intervention et Discussion ( RAID); and the CSP, anti-terrorist police who guard embassies and government buildings in Paris, who wear blue windcheaters, carry machine guns and aren’t the best people to ask directions to the Eiffel Tower.

The reputation of the French police

In general, French police (of any type) aren’t popular with the public and have an unenviable reputation, particularly among ethnic groups. Police ‘brutality’, usually directed towards racial minorities, has resulted in riots in some areas; in autumn 2005, the worst disturbances in Paris since 1968 were allegedly the outcome of police harrassment. On the other hand, an increase in attacks on police in recent years prompted the government in 2001 to pledge over €300m for the recruitment of some 2,700 police to patrol the streets and, following the 2002 election, the new Prime Minister announced measures to recruit an additional 13,500 officers within the police and gendarmerie over the next five years. It’s also planned to ‘encourage’ the police and gendarmes to work together, which they’ve traditionally been loath to do.

The police can stop you and demand identification at any time ( contrôle de papiers), so it’s advisable to carry your passport or residence permit ( carte de séjour). If you don’t have any identification, you can be arrested (the requirement to have at least ‘ten francs’, i.e. €1.67, to avoid a charge of vagrancy has recently been abolished!). If your identification documents are stolen or lost, you must report immediately to the nearest police station, where you must make a déclaration de perte ou de vol. You will be given a receipt, which will be accepted by the authorities until new documents are issued. It’s wise to keep copies of all important documents (e.g. passport, visa and carte de séjour) in a safe place so that replacements are easier to obtain.

Getting arrested in France

If you’re arrested, you’re required to state your name, age and permanent address only. Never make or sign a statement without legal advice and the presence of a lawyer. Unless your French is fluent, you should make it clear that you don’t understand French and, in any case, ask permission to call your lawyer or embassy. Someone from your embassy should be able to provide a list of English-speaking lawyers.

The police can hold you in custody for 24 hours, although you’re entitled to see a lawyer within three hours of arrest. After 24 hours they need the authority of a magistrate. If the offence under investigation involves state security, two further 48-hour extensions can be granted, making a total of five days. If you’re accused of a serious offence, such as possession of, or trafficking drugs, it may be difficult to obtain bail. A Council of Europe commission recently stated that suspects in France ran a ‘not inconsiderable risk’ of being mistreated while in police detention.

The police don’t prosecute criminal cases in France, which is done by a public prosecutor. Police can fine offenders (and do so, particularly if they’re non-residents) on the spot for motoring offences such as speeding and drunken driving, and fines must be paid in cash. You’re entitled to ask the name and particulars of any policeman who stops you, although it may be better to do this after you’ve found out what you’ve been stopped for!

All French residents have a police record (even if it’s blank!) and you may be asked to produce it (e.g. if you need to travel to or work in certain countries). To obtain a copy of your record ( extrait de casier judiciaire), you should send details of your date and place of birth and a copy of your passport and carte de séjour to the Service du Casier Judiciaire, 107 rue du Landreau, 44079 Nantes Cedex.

If you need to contact the police in an emergency, dialling 17 will put you in touch with your local gendarmerie or commissariat de police, listed at the front of your local telephone directory. If you lose anything or are the victim of a theft, you must report it in person at a police station and complete a report ( déclaration de vol/plainte), of which you will receive a copy. This must usually be done within 24 hours if you plan to make a claim on an insurance policy. Don’t, however, expect the police to be the slightest bit interested in your loss.

This article is an extract from Living and working in France. Click here to get a copy now.

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