"Gendarmerie Nationale"

History. During the French Middle Ages members of an aristocratic order that called themselves "Gens d'armes" (literally Gentlemen at Arms") swore a solemn oath to devote themselves of liberty and the law; and to maintain their chivalrous ideals of service to God and country.
Loyal servants to the sovereign, these "marechaussee" aided the government against rebels, ambitious marshals, scheming seneschals and adventurers who spread disorder throughout France. The "marechausee" were organised in companies under their own provosts and marshals, and were tasked to supervise the behaviour of troops, to repress disorders, to arrest thieves and arsonists, and to safeguard hunting, fishing and forestry. They were proclaimed Royal Gendarmes in 1700

The territorial settling, begun under Charles VII, was perfected in 1720 by Louis XV, who divided the strength into small squads. These squads were distributed so that they only had 4 or 5 leagues to guard on the two sides of a road.

At the time when the French Revolution kept on destroying the institutions of the monarchy, the marechaussee was the object of popular support expressed in the registers of grievances. Considered by the citizens as the most useful corps in the nation, it nevertheless had to give up its judicial functions to survive. Under the name of "Gendarmerie Nationale" it was organised by a law voted in by the Constitutional Assembly during the month of Germinal in the 6th year of the Republic.

Under this title the gendarmes received their baptism of fire at the battle of Hondeschoote against the Austro-Prussian coalition in 1793. The name and date of the battle are embroidered in letters of gold on their flag. Some years later, Napoleon transformed the corps as the Imperial Gendarmerie and they took part in all the military campaigns of the epoch.

A few years later the Emporer wrote:

"it is a special organisation that does not exist anywhere else in Europe. It is a half civilian, half military surveillance, spread all over the national territory...".

It is also probably the Gendarmerie Nationale that he referred to when he said:

"you cannot have a good army unless it has a good police force within it...".

Policing in France is now primarily the responsibility of two national law enforcement bodies
  • the Gendarmerie Nationale, which polices rural areas and small towns, and
  • the Police Nationale, which is responsible for policing Paris and provincial urban jurisdictions with populations of more than 10,000
The French police system has influenced other countries, especially those that were formerly part of the French colonial empire.

Organisation. The Gendarmerie Nationale are organised into three regions:
  • Atlantic Region
  • Mediterranean Region
  • North-East Region
The generals commanding the gendarmerie districts of Metz, Bordeaux and Lyon respectively command the North-East, Atlantic and Mediterranean gendarmerie regions. Each region is further sub-divided into districts, then legions, then battalions, then companies, and finally squads.

The gendarmerie district corresponds to the defence area at administrative level, and to the defence military district at the military level. The general commanding the gendarmerie district commands the departmental units as well as the mobile units in his district.

The departmental gendarmerie legion corresponds to the economic region at the administrative level. The commanding officer of the departmental gendarmerie legion has under his command several departmental gendarmerie battalions. There is one mobile legion in each district, and the commaning officer of the mobile gendarmerie legion has under his command several mobile gendarmerie battalions.

The Gendarmerie Nationale are also divided into five main divisions:
  • Departmental Gendarmerie.
  • Mobile Gendarmerie.
  • Maritime Gendarmerie. Since 1952 the Maritime Gendarmerie have effectively been part of the Marines. They are responsible for security on naval bases, and maintaining surveillance of France's coastline.
  • Air Gendarmerie. They are responsible for security on air force bases.
  • Republican Guard. The Republican Guard form France's ceremonial unit, and consists of infantry, mounted and motorcycle components.

The Gendermerie Nationale are also responsible for providing the French Armed Force with a military police force - the "Prevote". This organisation helped police the Free French in Britain during the Second World War.

Jurisdiction. The jurisdiction of the Gendarmerie Nationale is not known.
Duties. Precise duties of the Gendarmerie Nationale are not known.
Selection and Training.  
International Missions. Gendarmerie Nationale personnel accompany French forces on peacekeeping missions.  

Peacekeeping operations

Gendarmerie Nationale personnel with US Military Police. The Gendarme at right appears to be wearing a brassard on his left arm similar to that below.

Free French member - London 1942
French Gendermerie Nationale patrol in Germany - circa 1982

Gendarmerie Nationale Vehicles. The Gendarmerie Nationale make use of many different vehicles that range from motorcycles to armoured vehicles.  
Military Police Weapons.  
The French Foreign Legion also have their own military police force as can be seen below. While they wear white brassards with black lettering "PM" ("Police Militaire") on their left arms, these soldiers are more probably similar to Regimental Police.

MP's of the French Foreign legion