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Gendarmes to policiers – who does what in the French police force?

Anyone used to one single national police force may struggle with the many different types of officer in France, so here is our guide to who does what in the French police.

Gendarmes to policiers - who does what in the French police force?
All photos: AFP

If you've spent time in France you will have noticed that there are several different types of police, all of whom wear different uniforms. For the non-native figuring out which officers do what can be pretty confusing, so here's a guide to the different types of police in France.

Police Municipale

This is the lowest level of police. The police municipale come under the responsibility of the town's mayor and local council. A policier municipal – municipal police officer – usually tackles minor issues: small illegal constructions like a wall, stray dogs, parking tickets or low-level neighbour disputes.

Criminal complaints (rape, robbery etc) go beyond their powers. What they can do is report offences to their prosecutor, who will then transfer the file to the police nationale or to the gendarmerie.

They have the power of arrest, but must deliver any arrested person to a police nationale or gendarme.

Municipal police officers are allowed to carry weapons, but it is down to the mayor and the local authorities to decide whether they do. Following the 2015 Paris terror attacks, the number of armed municipal officers skyrocketed. Today, more than half of French policiers municipaux bear arms.

READ ALSO Emergency in France: Who to call and what to say

Police municipale generally tackle lower level issues like anti-social behaviour or parking issues. Photo: AFP

Police Nationale

Officers from la police nationale are classed as civil servants, just like the municipal police.

They can deal with criminal complaints and are divided in a number of specialised services, such as la brigade des moeurs (vice squad) or la brigade financière (fraud squad).

If you ever need to make a complaint of a crime, you are allowed to do it anywhere in France, whether the offence took place 200 metres or 200 kilometres away from the police station where you report. This principle is called guichet unique.

Officers from both the police municipale and the police nationale are allowed to go on strike.


CRS is the shortened form of Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité (Republican Security Companies) which are a branch of the French police nationale.

These are the officers that you will see policing any major demonstration in France, often wearing riot gear and carrying shields.

They were on the frontline during 'yellow vest' protests in Paris and other French cities and there has been some controversy over their tactics after a high number of injuries suffered by demonstrators. They mainly operate on major demonstrations and events where there is a potential for problems with public order.

They can also watch embassies and similar sensitive locations.

CRS officers are mobile police, meaning they are dispatched where they are needed and do not only operate in the area where they live.

READ ALSO How the 'yellow vests' made France have a national conversation about police violence

Officers seen on big demonstrations are likely to be members of the CRS. Photo: AFP

Gendarmerie Nationale

Gendarmes are part of the French military. They live in barracks and work shifts. As members of the military, they are not allowed to go on strike, which guarantees France a minimum service in times of civil protest or industrial dispute.

Unlike the police nationale, French gendarmerie is not divided into specialist services. Therefore, gendarmes usually treat cases from the moment they begin until they are judged, and are overall quite versatile.

They can be regulating traffic in the hours following a serious car crash and then be tackling a burglary moments later.

The gendarmerie also contains the Brigade Motorisée, or the traffic police on motorbikes who are a frequent sight on French roads. 

Gendarmerie de Montagne/Haut Montagne

In France the mountain rescue teams are also part of the police and a total of 260 gendarmes with very specialist skills are employed nationwide to perform rescues when people become lost or injured in the mountains. They also perform law enforcement duties and safety/accident prevention duties.

In the Massif Central and the Vosges they are known as the Gendarmerie de Montagne and in the Alps and the Pyrenees, as well as the mountains on the islands of Réunion and Corsica, they are known as the Gendarmerie de Haut Montage.

Inspection Générale de la Police Nationale

And overseeing all those is the Inspection Générale de la Police Nationale (national inspectorate of police) generally known as the IGPN. These are the people who police the police and investigate allegations of corruption, incompetence, police brutality and general poor behaviour from France's police forces. If you have a complaint about French police, you can report it online here.

The inspectors themselves have come in for a certain amount of criticism recently as their report into the behaviour of officers leading up to the death of Steve Canico in summer 2019 was widely judged to be far too sympathetic to the police. The sarcastic hashtag #SelonIGPN (according to the IGPN) was trending on Twitter as people shared ludicrous stories that only the credulous would believe.

Soldiers from Opération Sentinelle have been a regular sights on the streets since 2015. Photo: AFP

Opération sentinelle

Not actually part of the police force, but a sight you are likely to see in French cities, at tourist sites, places of worship and major transport interchanges since 2015.

Part of the French military, they are always wearing battle fatigues and carrying assault riffles. You can join the French military from the age of 18 so many of these sentinelles, as they are known, will be teenagers, hence the frequent tourist question 'why is there a child with a massive gun next to the Eiffel Tower?'

The Opération Sentinelle (Sentry Operation) was deployed on French soil in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo terror attacks, back in January 2015. The operation was reinforced in November the same year, following the Paris attacks. The soldiers involved are picked from many different units within the French military.

Member comments

  1. Interesting and informative article on the French policing forces. What is the history behind the military and civilian split? Also, does the Guarde Republicane fit into law enforcement somewhere?

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France to roll out ID cards app

Technology is being rolled out to allow people to carry their French ID cards in an app form - and could be rolled out to other cards, including driving licences and cartes de séjour residency cards.

France to roll out ID cards app

Holders of French carte d’identité (ID cards) will soon be able to carry certified digital versions of them on their smartphone or other electronic devices, a decree published in the Journal Officiel has confirmed.

An official app is being developed for holders of the newer credit card-format ID cards that have information stored on a chip. A provisional test version of the app is expected at the end of May.

Users will be able to use the ID card app, when it becomes available, for a range of services “from checking in at the airport to renting a car”, according to Thierry Breton, EU Commissioner for the Internal Market.

All French citizens have an ID card, which can be used for proving identity in a range of circumstances and for travel within the EU and Schengen zone – the new app will be in addition to the plastic card that holders already have.

Under the plans, after downloading the app, card holders will need merely to hold the card close to their phone to transfer the required information. According to officials, the holder then can decide what information is passed on – such as proof of age, or home address – according to the situation.

The government has not given any examples of situations in which the app would need to be used, but has set out the main principles and the ambition of the plan: to allow everyone to identify themselves and connect to certain public and private organisations, in particular those linked to the France Connect portal.

READ ALSO What is France Connect and how could it make your life simpler?

Cards will continue to be issued for the foreseeable future – this is merely an extension of the existing system.

Only French citizens have ID cards, but if successful the app is expected to be rolled out to include other cards, such as driving licences, cartes de séjour residency cards or even visas. A digital wallet is being developed at the European level – Member States have until September to agree what it could contain.

READ ALSO Eight smartphone apps that make life in France a bit easier