My friend Antoine the potter had a little incident with the Gendarmes from Bligny not long ago. Now before I begin this tale, I feel I should put to rest a belief that has become, apparently (according to my children,) current in the UK in the last few years.
This is that the Gendarmes in France are not real police. Well, they are, and this is a classic bit of Anglo-Saxon, er, confusion. I believe it has even been aired on that odious arch-slimeball Stephen Fry’s television show; not that that would make it any more the truth.
So let me explain.
Gendarmes are Police, right?
Firstly, the Gendarmes are indeed police, as understood by any Anglo-Saxon. The term literally means ‘men at arms’ and the Gendarmes are descended from the peacekeeping forces that first appeared in the Middle Ages, when local lords and later, town councils, would hire the biggest, toughest bruisers they could find and set them to breaking the heads of troublemakers,and then throwing them in the stocks. Today, minimum entry requirements for the Gendarmerie include being educated to Master’s Degree level, and being fluent in English. That’s minimum. I suggest you exercise caution before expressing any quaint notion that they might not be ‘real’ policemen. They have a long and proud history, tend to resent having it belittled, and a posh accent cuts no mustard here. Just saying.
I think the situation is complicated for Anglo-Saxons, well, the English anyway, because although the Gendarmes are indeed The Law, there are other forms of police as well. British people are not used to this, though the septic tanks might be. So let us list them in order of …how does one express mechancité in English? Meanness, perhaps. Well, the least virulent are the Police Municipal. To a Brit, these are a bit like Traffic Wardens on steroids. They often drive around towns on Mobylettes or in little vans, and don’t normally carry heavy ordnance. They can still hand out tickets and on-the-spot fines, though, and otherwise thoroughly ruin your day, if they want to.
Then there are the aforementioned Gendarmes, who are your common-or-garden, one-size-fits-all, regular Plod. They wear blue uniforms and carry automatic pistols. Their cars are blue, and have the word ‘Gendarmes’ on the side. Every town has its Gendarmerie, and that is where you go to file complaints, do any police-style stuff, and appear when you have been naughty. They are the primary enforcers of the law and investigators of crime. And they are as intolerant of transgressors as plod anywhere. Treat them with respect.
In major cities, they have do indeed have Police who call themselves Police. Possibly, if you never strayed outside central Paris, you would never see a Gendarme. So Slimy Steve got it partly right. But the city Police are really just the same as the Gendarmes, the uniformed ones anyway, with a fancy title. And outside of major cities, in the smaller cities, towns and countryside of France, the Constabulary are called Gendarmes and that is that. Says so right here in my trusty Collins Robert.
Going up a level, to the downright nasty, we come to the Police National. These were formed from the old CRS, or Compagnie Republicain de Securité, or, in other words, the riot police. These lads got a worldwide reputation for being black-enamelled bastards in 1968, when they were deployed to tear-gas and baton-charge the rioting French students during the Siege of the Sorbonne. They made the mistake of not nobbling the Media first. (If you are too young to remember this, kindly keep it to yourself.)
Anyway they went on being the CRS for a while after that, and then one day they became the Police National. Doubtless this was a PR gimmick, or maybe their intended victims were too smart to do anything illegal while they were around. But despite the name-change, they remain as tough, brutal and merciless as ever.
France is by no means a federal state, on the contrary, it is very much centralised, but the various brigades of Gendarmerie are responsible to local bodies, principally the Prefecture of the Departement in which they are active. The Police Nationale are organised nationally and are thus able to respond to issues that cross Departementale boundaries. These guys drive jam sandwiches rather than the discreet blue of the regular Gendarmes, and they also carry machine-guns. Do not mess with them.
On the roads, you will often see what look very much like police, with blue vehicles like the Gendarmes, but with Douane written on the side. These are actually Customs. They hang around the parking areas at the ferry terminals, and at the ‘aires’ or service stations on the motorways. They seem to really like machine-guns and very big dogs.
France is a Schengen country, which means that it has open borders; no Customs controls, unlike in England, where there is always some officious little shit with the title ‘Customs’ asking questions he (or she) has no business knowing the answer to, well, not in a free country anyway.
The Douaniers are not out to arrest you, beat the holy crap out of you or otherwise ruin your day, they just want your money, and the way to get them to take it is to not have the appropriate papers for whatever it is that you might have in your vehicle, also with you. Brits, of course, are brought up to leave their documents at home, as a security measure.
The opposite is true in France. You are expected to carry all the relevant documents, all the time. The sensible thing to do is to keep your receipts for everything you ever buy, your insurance, MoT, driving licence, dog licence, whatever, in a nice big bundle and stuff all of it in the glove box of your car.
That way there is a good chance you might actually have the receipt showing that the gallons of wine causing your car to ride on its bump-stops were bought legally, and if you don’t, a slightly less good chance that the Douanier will give up halfway through the pile of confetti and wave you along.
By the way, the oft-quoted ‘limit’ of ninety litres for the amount of wine that a UK citizen can buy in France and bring home to guzzle, is a complete red herring. It is only a ‘guide’ thought up by those shits, sorry, nice people at the UK Customs. It is not in any way enforceable in law, and you can bring back as much cheap (or otherwise) glug as you like. The European Court has ruled on this. Same applies to cigarettes, if you have the evil habit. They have to actually prove that you intend to sell the stuff once you get back…and you wouldn’t do a thing like, would you?
Oh, about Antoine’s speedo
Anyway, to get back to Antoine and the Gendarmes. He told me one day that he’d just been stopped at the crossroads at Pont d’Ouche—a notorious plod hideout—for doing 120kph in a 90 zone. The Gendarme, as usual in these cases all stiff and haughty like, explained to him that he had been driving 30kph over the speed limit, and that the punishment for this was eighty Euros and a point off his licence. Antoine, after a moment’s thought, politely countered that his speedo had been saying 90, and he had not gone past this. The Gendarme, sniffily, looked inside the car and shook his head.
“Your speedo is stuck at 90,” he pointed out. “No wonder you didn’t know you were over the limit. That’s another forty Euros for the defective speedometer.”
Now this is where the logical mind of the Frenchman can be seen to best advantage. “Ah,” says our potter, “I see. But if I didn’t know I was speeding, I couldn’t have known I was going over the limit, as you say, sir. So how can you charge me for breaking it?”
At this the Gendarme, apparently, frowned, sucked a tooth, and went to discuss matters with his colleague. After a few minutes he returned, his mien grave. “All right,” quoth he, “You can either have the speeding fine or the defective speedo. Which is it to be?”
Antoine thought about this for about for seconds, and then made sure he had the details correct.
“It’s eighty Euros and a point off the licence for the speeding, yes?”
The Gendarme agreed.
“And forty and no endorsement for the speedo?” Once again, the officer affirmed.
“Umm, okay, well, I’ll take the speedo, thanks,” said Antoine, absolutely convinced there must be a catch. But there wasn’t. The nice Gendarme (who wasn’t such a bad lad after all, it seemed,) duly wrote out the faulty speedo ticket, and relieved Antoine of forty Euros, in cash.
“Get it fixed,” he said to Antoine, before saluting and waving him off.
I swallowed my beer slowly as I percolated this. “That’s amazing,” I said. “In the UK they’d have hit you for the speedo, the speeding, and taken your car apart to find out whatever else they could fine you for as well.” I shook my head and cast my eye over his ageing SAAB, which was parked across the road. I could see a half-dozen vehicle faults without even standing up.
“Oh, bah non,” said Antoine. “That would not have been reasonable.” He shrugged.
“But you’ve fixed the speedo?”
“No. Why? I already paid the fine.” Antoine shrugged again and swigged his beer. “I’ll do it for the next Controle Technique.” He chuckled. “It was a damn good job he let me off with the speeding though. I only had forty with me and it’s a long walk back from there. Plus they’d have impounded the damn car and I’d have had to pay to get it out again.”
Fortune favours the bold, even in France, it seems.
Also published on Medium.