How to call ‘la police’

La policeThere are a number of nicknames and expressions for the police in French. Les flics. Les keufs. Les poulets.

Although poulet means ‘chicken’ it doesn’t have the same cowardly connotation as it does in English. The story goes back to 1871 when the Paris police headquarters were moved to what had formerly been a chicken market. The name stuck, much to the chagrin of the police, and became a popular nickname much like the fuzz (and is similarly outmoded).

The expression ‘la peur du gendarme’ refers to the fear of getting caught. Seems this is the only thing that keeps people in line. ‘Flicage’ or ‘faire le flic’ means to survey, police or report your neighbors (and is the one behavior the French detest most).

In my early days in Paris, I was shocked to see police officers in full machine gun-toting regalia on the streets. It made me a little nervous. But most French people seem reassured by such displays of force.

The French have a love-hate relationship with their various law enforcement agents and with figures of authority in general. It’s not that they don’t appreciate the work they do, but they are resistant to being told what to do, and outright concerned about abuses of power.

Police corruption was the theme of the 1984 comedy film ‘Les Ripoux.’ The name is a play on words using ‘verlan’ (an inversion of l’envers) where the order of syllables is reversed. In this case, ‘ripoux’ means ‘pourri’ in reference to bad cops that take bribes. It was released in English under the rather pedestrian title of ‘My New Partner’.

Depending on where you live, you may be dealing with different levels of les forces de l’ordre. In the country, it will probably be the Gendarmes. In bigger cities and towns, it will be the municipal police.

Here is a quick rundown of the various police forces in France:

Police Municipale – Only larger cities in France have their own municipal police forces.They report to the mayor and come under the general authority of the Minister of the Interior.

La Gendarmerie Nationale – Smaller towns and country villages are under the jurisdiction of the Gendarmes. They are actually a division of the military. They’re the ones with le képi, the funny hats that depict French cops in all the old movies.

Le Garde Champêtre – This is the local cop in a country village. Reports to the mayor but comes under the supervision of the Gendarmes. We have one in our town. He likes to hide behind the shrubbery on the roundabout with a hand-held radar device.

La Police Nationale – These are the les gardiens de la paix, the guys responsible for our safety in places like airports. The French National Police report to the Minister of the Interior. They also include the CRS – Compagnies Républicaines de Securité – the riot police in charge of crowd control during the massive demonstrations in the nation’s capital. (Like the one from last week’s post, The Kiss.)

In addition to the above, there are 3 levels of elite forces who take over in major events like terror attacks and hostage takings.

GIGN Groupement d’intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale. Created 40 years ago following the Munich massacre at the 1972 Olympics.

GIPNGroupes d’Intervention de la Police Nationale. These are the equivalent counter-terrorism forces of the National Police.

RAID – Pronounced ‘red’, this stands for Recherche, Assistance, Intervention, Dissuasion. Additional elite forces of the National Police that cover Paris.

I am always amazed at how such a complicated hierarchy of police forces seem to coordinate their efforts without stepping on each others’ toes – or killing each other. Thankfully, the chain of command seems to work.

Now, the tricky part: in the case of an emergency, who do you call? The lack of a centralized emergency number like 911 in France has always been a bugbear of mine. There are different numbers to call depending on whether you need an ambulance (15), the police (17) or the fire department (18). If that’s too much to remember, now you can also use the new centralized number introduced at the European level: 112.

How about you? Ever called the police or wondered what to do in an emergency?


  1. cheergerm · January 30, 2015

    What a complex and fascinating system! It’s amazing that it all manages to work but good that it does!

    • MELewis · January 30, 2015

      Yes, I’m often amazed and grateful it works, too, especially since what happened in Paris – Vive la police! 🙂

  2. davidprosser · January 30, 2015

    I had to have the police out after I was burgled but I’m delighted to say there are just two numbers here, either a phone number to your local police station ( if one exists any more ) or 999 ( now 112) for more of an emergency.
    Your system does sound complicated but at least you’re probably likely to have enough manpower to answer.
    xxx Huge Hugs xxx

    • MELewis · January 30, 2015

      I’m not sure about the local numbers here, either….and based on the attempted burglary at my neighbour’s, I’m not sure how well staffed we are in the remote areas. They had to wait 40 minutes while the hapless fellow who’d fallen off their balcony and broken his leg lay in the backyard! Hopefully you won’t have a repeat of your break in. Big bises xx

  3. nessafrance · January 30, 2015

    I came across another slang word for police, from Maigret novels set in Paris. When the police entered a bar or night club, people would whisper, “Vingt-deux.” I have not been able to discover the origins. Does anyone else know?

    I am constantly amazed that the system works as well as it does. We have had to call the gendarmes on several occasions, when neighbouring second homes have been “visited”, as they say around here, and when the local library, where I used to do a stint, was broken into. They turned up quickly but couldn’t do much.

    • MELewis · January 30, 2015

      Oddly enough, I did discover the answer to that while researching this post…did not include it here as I figured it was too French for most of the readers (although clearly not you, Nessa!). Here’s the explanation – it actually comes not from the police but from l’imprimerie:

      • nessafrance · January 30, 2015

        Ah, thank you. What an interesting explanation. How I love these little snippets of French culture. I can feel a blog post coming on – but I won’t steal your thunder!

  4. Dana · January 31, 2015

    Great explanation for all the different kinds of police! I certainly learned new things and I live here 🙂

    • MELewis · January 31, 2015

      So glad it was helpful, Dana! Hopefully you never need to call them but I suppose it’s better to know your gendarmes from your CRS.

      • Dana · February 2, 2015

        too true!

  5. peakperspective · February 2, 2015

    It sounds like the people are cocooned in a protective layer of well trained and much wanted watchdogs. I can only imagine the level of recognition and appreciation many officers are receiving lately.
    For myself, they’re a group of people I never want to lay eyes on, but feel so relieved exist. One of the most challenging and unforgiving careers to have.
    Really informative post!

    • MELewis · February 2, 2015

      Et oui! Recent events have sparked some public support for the police, which is well deserved. Guess we all dread having the policeman at the door….but so glad there’s someone to do that job.

  6. Osyth · February 3, 2015

    We have a Gendarmerie in the village but it is only manned twice a week for a couple of hours at a time. When not manned you press a button and your call goes through the control room in Aurillac. Our friend Lionel is one of the Gendarmes who mans the control room. I try not to bother him – too embarrassing it would be 😉 Loved the post – it is a complicated system (as so many are here) but it seems to function, I think

    • MELewis · February 3, 2015

      Oh, it’s good to have friends in the right places…even though you don’t want to bother him, I’m sure you’d be happy to see a familiar face if the need arises. Let’s hope it does not – when you live in a remote region, one of the risks is being relatively far from emergency services. But the reverse side is the peace and tranquility, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world!

      • Osyth · February 3, 2015

        It’s true to say that I wouldn’t trade it either but there are times when I slip walking in the wilderness that I wonder how many rapace would have taken a peck at my prostrate corpse before the emergency boys get to me!

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