The Gendarmerie Nationale of France is a national paramilitary police force which polices communes with populations of fewer than 5,000. The Gendarmerie is actually part of the French army and is run by the Ministry of War, although it is also responsible to the Ministry of the Interior for public order policing and to the Ministry of Justice for criminal investigation.
The Gendarmerie has its origins in the Maréchaussée (marshals’ men), who had existed to assist the military provost-marshals since the fourteenth century. In the sixteenth century they were also given the task of maintaining order in the countryside (especially along major roads) and in 1791 they acquired their present name.
Although to most foreigners any French policeman is a gendarme, the real gendarme is a soldier, a military policeman. Although his official rank is simply gendarme, he actually holds the equivalent army rank of maréchal des logis (sergeant), and wears the insignia of that rank (a single point-up silver chevron above his cuff). He polices rural areas, villages and small towns and usually originates from such areas himself. He is smart, disciplined and has a distinctly military manner and bearing. He is respected by most and has a reputation for efficiency and honesty, although not necessarily for courtesy or flexibility. The gendarme is always technically on duty and is not therefore paid overtime. There will be no female gendarmes until 1974.
The gendarme wears a dark blue tunic and trousers with red stripes down his trouser legs and his number shown on either side of the standing collar of his tunic. On his head he wears the traditional round, peaked, stiff képi with a lighter blue top. In summer, he wears a lightweight khaki uniform instead of the usual blue. In inclement weather, he wears a heavy greatcoat or cape.
The gendarme carries a revolver at all times and may also carry a rifle if necessary to defend a fixed point or for crowd control. As well as in defence of his own or others’ lives or in defence of a location he has been ordered to guard, he may legally open fire on persons resisting arrest, attempting to escape from his custody or evade his enquiries, or even on drivers who do not stop when ordered to. In other words, it is best to do what a gendarme tells you to do.
Although it is a staple of literary and cinematic fiction, the concept of the lone village gendarme does not exist in France. Gendarmes are organised on a cantonal basis and are based out of a police station in the chief commune (usually a small town) of that canton. Most rural cantons have a Gendarmerie brigade (the term is used for the police station as well as the unit), from which gendarmes patrol the district on foot, by bicycle or on horseback, always in pairs. There are few motor vehicles available.
The brigade is usually headed by a maréchal des logis-major (sergeant-major), who is addressed by his men as “chef”. This rank is renamed maréchal des logis-chef (staff sergeant) in 1928. Both ranks wear two point-up silver chevrons above the cuff. Most brigades have fewer than a dozen gendarmes, although they can have up to forty. Larger brigades are commanded by an adjudant (warrant officer) or adjudant-chef (chief warrant officer), who wear respectively a gold or a silver ring on their cuff with a red central stripe. The brigade commander (brigadier) is supposed to have a close working relationship with the local maires, which may or may not actually be the case in practice.
The brigade functions as a barracks as well as a police station, as unmarried gendarmes are required to live on the premises. Traditionally it employs no civilian staff, as the gendarmes are expected to do all the work around the place, including cooking, cleaning and gardening (most brigades have well-kept front gardens). Married gendarmes usually live in married quarters attached to their brigades.
The brigades in each arrondissement are grouped into a compagnie (company), commanded by a lieutenant, capitaine or chef d’escadron (major), depending on its size. The compagnies in each département are collected into a groupement commanded by a lieutenant-colonel or colonel. The compagnie and groupement commanders are responsible for policing matters to the local sous-préfet or préfet respectively. Commissioned officers are distinguished by two to five silver rings on their cuffs (lieutenant-colonels and colonels both have five rings, the former with the second and fourth rings in gold).
The Gendarmerie Mobile is formed in July 1921 to provide support for the cantonal brigades, especially in public order situations. Initially with a strength of 4,000, it is divided into pelotons (platoons) of 25 men, each commanded by a lieutenant. These are grouped into compagnies under capitaines, with one in each département. Each compagnie has machine-guns and mortars available, and as the name suggests these units are provided with motor transport so they can get to where they are needed rapidly. In 1926, it is renamed the Garde Républicaine Mobile (GRM; Mobile Republican Guard). By 1935, it has an official establishment of 20,000 men, although it never actually reaches this strength.