France is policed by two distinct types of uniformed police: the Gendarmerie Nationale and the Police Municipale. Foreigners often refer to all French policemen as ‘gendarmes’, but this is inaccurate. Although the municipal policeman wears a similar uniform to the true gendarme, he is actually a very different beast and the two should not be confused.
The Gendarmerie Nationale is a national, centralised, paramilitary force which polices communes with populations of fewer than 5,000 people. It is therefore primarily confined to rural areas for general policing, although it does have some other responsibilities. Its members are technically soldiers and have a military bearing and a reasonably good reputation.
The Police Municipale are responsible for communes with populations of 5,000 or more, and therefore mostly police towns. Each commune is responsible for organising its own police, and municipal police forces therefore vary wildly in quality from commune to commune, although generally their reputation is not especially good. The municipal police forces will not be amalgamated into the Police Nationale and taken under the wing of central government until 1941. The ordinary municipal policeman has less power than the gendarme and is accorded far less respect by the populace.
By far the largest and best-known of the municipal police forces is the Préfecture de Police de Paris (Paris Police Prefecture), which covers the entire Département of the Seine as well as some neighbouring communes. It has a far better reputation than the other municipal police forces and, indeed, is considered one of the best police forces in Europe.
Finally, there are gardes champêtres (rural guards), combined policemen, game wardens and forest rangers who operate in many rural communes. They have few powers and mainly act as local eyes and ears for the gendarmerie.
As in most of Continental Europe, the main function of all police in France is to protect the state from disorder. Protecting citizens from crime is very much a secondary objective. Both the gendarmerie and the police have a reputation for discourtesy and inflexibility, for their use of networks of spies and informers against anyone to whom the state takes a dislike as well as against actual criminals, and for excessive use of force in public order incidents, in which it is not unknown for members of the public to be injured or killed.