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Law enforcement in France

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Title: Law enforcement in France  
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Law enforcement in France

Policemen with motorcycles and a car in Strasbourg.

Law enforcement in France has a long history dating back to 570 AD, when night watch systems were common place.[1] Policing is centralized at the national level.[1] Recently, legislation has allowed local governments to hire their own police officers which are called the Police municipale.[1]

There are two national police forces called Police Nationale (PN) and Gendarmarie Nationale. There is also the Prefecture of Police of Paris which provides policing services directly as a subdivision of France's Ministry of the Interior. Only certain designated police officers have the power to conduct criminal investigations, and such investigations are supervised by investigative magistrates.


  • Organizations 1
    • National Agencies 1.1
    • Other agencies 1.2
    • Police vs Gendarmerie 1.3
    • French Police jurisdictions 1.4
  • Procedures 2
    • Administrative policing 2.1
    • Judicial policing 2.2
  • Rights and limitations 3
  • Officers and agents of judiciary police 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6


National Agencies

Renault Mégane of the Douanes

France has two national police forces:[1]

  • Police Nationale, formerly called the Sûreté, is considered a civilian police force. Its origins date back to 1812 and was created by Eugène François Vidocq. In 1966 its name was officially changed to Police Nationale.[1] It has primary responsibility for major cities and large urban areas. The Police Nationale are under the control of the Ministry of the Interior; its strength is roughly 150,000.[1]
  • Gendarmerie Nationale, has the primary responsibility for policing smaller towns and rural areas, as well as all military installations, airport security and shipping ports. They are highly centralized and under the control of the Ministry of Defence.[1] The Gendarmerie's origin dates back to 1306 C.E. when King Phillip le Bel formed the first mounted military police force called the Marechaussee.[1] Between 1697 and 1699, King Louis XIV asserted his authority over police in France and the Marechaussee became the formal law enforcement arm of the country.[1] In 1789 Napoleon gave them their military essence and in 1791 they formally became the Gendarmerie.[1] Today there is about 105,000 Gendarmes in France.[1]

Other agencies

Vehicle of the municipal police of Strasbourg.

The municipal policemen can notice all the breaches but cannot investigate. There are also local polices in the rural zones, as for the rural policemen the "police rurale" as such does not exist. Note the heterogeneousness of local polices both in means and in equipment.

  • Police Municipale are the local police of towns and cities in France. The French municipal police are under the direct authority of the Mayor,
  • Rural communes may also form a garde champêtre which is responsible for limited local patrol and protecting the environment

Police vs Gendarmerie

French gendarmes

The leadership of both agencies is centralized and they both have conventional deviance control responsibilities respectively except in different geographical locations in France.[1] The Police Nationale is responsible for Paris and other urban areas whereas the Gendarmerie is responsible for small towns and rural areas with fewer than 16,000 inhabitants.[1] The existence of two national police forces with similar goals and attributions, but somewhat different zones of activity, has at times created friction or competition between the two. Their merging has sometimes been suggested.

With the development of suburban dwellings, this had increasingly proved inadequate. Furthermore, the shifting of a town from a Police to a Gendarmerie zone was often controversial, because, typically, a gendarmerie unit serves a wide area.[2]

A redistribution of authority was thus decided and implemented between 2003 and 2005. Large conurbations will be handled entirely by the Police. Rural and suburban areas, and some smaller cities with populations ranging from 5,000 to 16,000, will be handled by the Gendarmerie.[2]

In addition, the Police and the Gendarmerie have specific zones of authority:

  • the Police handle questions about the admittance, monitoring and continuing stay of foreigners (border police);
  • the Gendarmerie handles all matters regarding the military, the police at sea, the security of airports, and the security of certain public buildings (Republican Guard).

French Police jurisdictions

In French, the term "police" not only refers to the forces, but also to the general concept of "maintenance of law and order" (policing). There are two types of police in this general sense:

  • administrative police (police administrative): uniformed preventative patrols, traffic duties, handling of the mentally ill, etc.
  • judicial police (police judiciaire): law enforcement and investigation of crime.

Thus, the mayor has administrative police power in a town (i.e. they can order the police to enforce the municipal by-laws), and a judge has police power in their court (i.e. they can have people who disrupt the proceedings expelled from the court room).

Until 1984, the National Police was involved in the prehospital care and casualty transport (Police secours). The prehospital care is now performed by firefighters; however, mountain rescue is performed by the Gendarmerie PGHM (Peloton de gendarmerie de haute montagne) and the National Police CRS (Compagnies républicaines de sécurité; Republican Security Companies).

Some other countries follow this model and have separate police agencies with the same role but different jurisdictions.

Local Police or Gendarmerie precincts may not be capable of conducting complex investigations. For this reason, both the Police and the Gendarmerie maintain regional services dedicated to criminal investigations (police judiciaire); these are known as "regional services of judiciary police" in the Police, "research sections" in the Gendarmerie. In addition, both the Police and the Gendarmerie maintain laboratories dedicated to forensics. Most criminal enquiries are conducted by the Police. Justice may choose either service; sometimes, if the judiciary is disappointed by the results or the methods of one service, it may give the enquiry to the other service.

The National Police also features some central offices with national jurisdiction, charged with specific missions, such as the national anti-terrorist division.

Both the Police and the Gendarmerie have SWAT teams. The Gendarmerie has the foremost and best-known, the GIGN; the Police has the RAID and the GIPN groups. The Gendarmerie also has armored and paratroops squadrons.

Both the Police and the Gendarmerie have riot control forces: the CRS for the Police, the Gendarmerie Mobile for the Gendarmerie (which are often mistaken for the former). They intervene throughout the country.

One justification for the maintenance of a military force handling matters of civilian police is that the military cannot unionize, contrary to civilian civil servants such as the Police, which may make management easier. The gendarmes found a workaround by forming associations of spouses of gendarmes.

The gendarmes each have a free housing inside their respective gendarmerie stations, which is not the case for the police.


A Water cannon of the French National Police.

Administrative policing

The police administrative comprises a variety of actions undertaken under the direction and supervision of the executive branch, notably the prefect, police and gendarmerie forces conduct a variety of actions ensuring public order. They include:

Judicial policing

The police judiciaire comprises a variety of actions undertaken under the direction and supervision of the judiciary. They include:

  • interrogating suspects in some phases of judicial enquiries
  • gathering evidence

These actions must follow the rules given in the Code of Penal Procedure (Code de procédure pénale), articles 12 to 29.

In order to better fulfill these missions, the Direction Centrale de la Police Judiciaire of the French National Police regroups all the units specialized in criminal enquiries. The Gendarmerie counterpart are the sections de recherche (research sections).

Rights and limitations

French motor officers in biker uniform

The powers of French Police and Gendarmerie forces are constrained by statute law and jurisprudence. The rules of procedure depend on the stage of enquiry:

  • Crimes committed in flagrante delicto, in which a suspect was found committing the crime, or pursued by witnesses, or found in possession of objects from the crime or other probable cause.
  • Preliminary enquiries: it is unclear whether a crime, or which crime, has been committed, but there exist good reasons to believe this might be the case.
  • Judicial information: an investigative magistrate (a judge, external to the police) supervises an inquiry on a case where it is certain, or at least very probable, that a crime has been committed.

In particular, outside of crimes in flagrante delicto, law enforcement forces may not conduct searches or arrests without a specific commission from the investigative magistrate. Depending on legal status of cases, not all law enforcement officers are able to act; some powers are restricted to those have special legal qualifications (see next section).

Officers and agents of judiciary police

Officers in plain clothes stopping a car.

The procedures that police and gendarmerie officers follow when conducting criminal inquiries are set by the Code of Criminal procedure (Code de procédure pénale) and applicable jurisprudence. Criminal inquiries are conducted under the supervision of the judiciary (depending on the phase, under the supervision of the public prosecutor or of an investigative judge).

There are three judiciary qualifications: "officer of judiciary police" (officier de police judiciaire or OPJ), "agent of judiciary police" (agent de police judiciaire or APJ) and "agent of judiciary police assistant" (APJ adjoint). The qualifications of OPJ and APJ can only be exercised if they are affected to a position where these are needed, and, for the OPJs by nominal decision of the general prosecutor of their area. These prerogatives are temporarily suspended when they engage, in an organized force, in an operation of public order (i.e. riot control).

  • Mayors and deputy mayors are OPJs. This disposition is rarely used.
  • In the National Police, these are qualified as OPJs:
    • the commissionners and above ranks;
    • the titular members of the corps de commandement nominally listed in a joint decision by the Ministers of Justice and of the Interior;
    • members of the Corps d'encadrement et d'application who have completed three years of service, and are nominally listed in a joint decision by the Ministers of Justice and of the Interior.
  • In the National Gendarmerie, these are qualified as OPJs:
    • commissioned officers
    • non-commissioned officers having completed three years of service, nominally designated by a joint decision by the Ministers of Justice and of Defense.

These ministerial nomination decisions may only be taken after the approval of a specific commission. The current rules also warrant the completion of an examination pertaining to legal matters.

Most other members of the National Police and Gendarmerie are APJs. The remaining members of the National Police, as well as members of municipal police forces, are APJ assistants.

Only OPJs may serve search (this includes any body search more invasive than an external palpation) and put somebody in custody ("garde à vue") for 24 hours; APJs may only assist them in these tasks. In case a suspect has been apprehended by an APJ, he/she must be brought before an OPJ, which will in turn have to inform the public prosecutor. According to the law, any citizen can apprehend the author of a crime or of an offence that can be punished by a prison sentence (citizen's arrest), and lead him/her to an OPJ. However, this is problematic in case of a "simple" citizen due to the estimation of what can be punished by a prison sentence or not, and due to possible abuse (abuses are a restriction of the individual freedom and can be sued for illegal confinement).

The quality of officer of judiciary police may be withdrawn by the Judiciary if the officer has behaved in an inappropriate fashion. The general prosecutor grades OPJs, and these grades are taken into account for possible promotions.

See also



  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Dammer, H.R. & Albanese, J.S. (2014). Comparative criminal justice systems. (5th ed). Wadesworth Cengage learning: Belmont, CA. ISBN 978-1-285-06786-5
  2. ^ a b
  • (French) Legal analysis of the goals of administrative policing
  • (French) Code of penal procedure
    • Statute part
    • regulations
      • Decrees in the Council of State
      • Simple decrees
      • Administrative decisions
  • (French) Direction centrale de la police judiciaire, Aspects de la criminalité et de la délinquance constatées en France en 2004 par les services de police et les unités de gendarmerie, vol 1, vol 2 (PDF); to be published by La Documentation française
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