There is something particularly horrifying in the idea of setting a trap or organizing an ambush against those whose job it is to protect us. Yet that is what is happening in our second month of lockdown here in France.

I was horrified to learn in the news yesterday that police are being targeted by groups bored by confinement in the Paris suburbs. The media call such acts ‘guets-apens’ (pronounced the same in plural or singular: get app-on), which means n ambush or trap.

Years ago French urban planning in all its wisdom created many ‘banlieues’ (suburbs) or ‘cités’ (projects or housing estates) around major cities like Paris and Lyon. In what was once thought of as modern, these high-density living areas of apartment towers were built, some not so long ago, around roads and hypermarkets rather than parks and communities. The model was presumably American but it doesn’t translate well. In France these low-income areas are a socio-economic disaster. Chronic unemployment, immigration, gangs: basically it’s the whole gamut of urban decay.

Now, with people stuck indoors, and many out of work, these areas are like a powder keg. And it seems a match has been struck.

I get it. I do. It’s starting to feel like forever since we were allowed to go about our business freely in France. For those crammed in apartments, with little or no access to the outdoors, May 11th is just too far away. There’s some relief in sight: kids will go back to school in waves next month, starting with the youngest classes and finally the lycéens. But it’s not enough to defuse the time bomb of pent-up frustration.

This video pulled from YouTube tells a story of what the police are facing. Here they are the target of mortar fireworks. It follows an earlier incident in which a driver refused to stop for a police check and sped away before abandoning the vehicle and running off, leaving four children alone in the car; thankfully they were not injured but it set off a series of riots.

And it’s not the only incident. In the cités especially north of Paris, bored kids go out on scooters and race around in ‘rodeos’ that drive the neighbours to distraction. This escalates to setting bins and cars on fire. The police are called and voilà…un guet-apens. They are shot at, or get bricks or Molotov cocktails thrown at them. Reinforcements are called in, rubber bullets and tear gas are used. It’s a potentially explosive set of circumstances that could easily escalate into full blown riots at a time when police and hospitals are already stretched to breaking point.

The above incident happened in Grigny last week, a suburb south of Paris. Many years ago when we first moved to France I worked in nearby Evry, a local hub for business, teaching English at Berlitz. It is a pretty area, with a lovely forest (Forêt de Sénart) and convenient access to Paris. We briefly considered settling there before deciding to move south to Lyon, which aside from its obvious charms has its own problems but on a smaller scale.

As we enter our final weeks of this confinement (and who knows if there will be others?), and as the weather gets warmer and temperatures soar, I hope that these incidents will remain unfortunate exceptions and not the beginning of deeper discontent.

It feels like we are all trapped in a guet-apens by this coronavirus. Now more than ever, we need solidarity for those who are suffering from this terrible disease, and especially all those in the police and medical professions who are working so hard to keep us healthy and safe.

How are you feeling?

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?


Vigipirate TF1We have lived under the threat of terrorism in France for so long that a state of emergency has become the norm.

‘Vigipirate,’ an amalgam of the words ‘vigilance’ and ‘pirate,’ is the French national security plan that defines levels of risk of an attentat (terrorist act). It ranges from the mild threat on yellow to the red alert. Each level calls for specific security measures, including increased police or military patrols in subways, train stations and other vulnerable locations.

What does that mean in everyday life? Metal detectors in government buildings. Public toilets closed. Garbage bins removed from street corners and train stations. School trips cancelled. And police with automatic weapons casually patrolling streets of major cities.

Back in the summer of ’95, shortly after we moved here, a wave of terror hit France. This was my first experience living up close with a terrorist threat. My daughter, Madeline, was just two, and my son, Elliott, had started cours primaire, the French equivalent of grade one. We were living in Lyon and my husband traveled frequently to Paris on the TGV, the high-speed train.

I felt incredibly vulnerable and exposed to dangers that suddenly seemed omnipresent. Our apartment was in a busy part of the third arondissement, just a couple of blocks from the fire station where sirens were going constantly. The narrow streets of our quartier were tightly packed with parked cars – each a potential bomb.

People were warned to watch for abandoned bags in public places. I began to look suspiciously at garbage bags piled by the curb. If someone set their suitcase down outside a shop, I was ready to call the police. My husband joked about my paranoia. But where to draw the line?

That July, a gas bottle exploded in the Paris Metro station Saint-Michel, killing eight and injuring 80, and other bombs were set at the Arc de Triomphe and on the TGV train line. Then a car bomb blew up in front of a Jewish school in Villeurbanne, just next to Lyon. Fortunately, the children had been kept late so the worst was avoided. Some weeks later, a young Algerian named Khaled Kelkal was shot down and killed in the hills outside of Lyon by the GIGN, an elite paramilitary force. He was part of the “Armed Islamic Group” that had been trying to bring the civil war in Algeria to France. His fingerprints had been found on homemade bombs used in the attacks. They were similar to those used in Boston.

The first time I saw men toting machine guns on the streets of Paris, I was terrified. “Are those babies actually loaded?” I asked my husband. He told me not to worry – they were there to protect us. I have since heard this sentiment echoed many times by the French, who are visibly reassured by a display of official weaponry.

Perhaps it’s cultural but when I see weapons I do not feel safe. They are there to be used, and who knows who might get caught in the crossfire?

I also learned to distinguish between the various levels of “les forces de l’ordre.” The French do not use the word police in any generic way, which I learned after mistakenly referring to to la police every time I saw an uniformed officer.

Your typical local policeman is a municipal employee. ‘Les flics’ as the cops are called, give out tickets and tell you to move on if you’re loitering. In Paris and other major cities much of the policing is handled by the National Police, or CRS, who report to the Minister of the Interior.  Don’t ask me why this is important but trust me, it is. These guys are in charge of identity checks and traffic control in la capitale.

Then you have the gendarmes, who are actually members of the military deployed to protect the highways, regions and smaller towns. The word ‘gendarme’ comes from the old French ‘gens d’armes’ meaning men-at-arms.

When things get very scary, they bring in the big guns. The National Gendarmerie Intervention Group, commonly abbreviated GIGN (Groupe d’Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale), is a special operations unit trained to perform counter-terrorist and hostage rescue missions. These guys wear masks to keep their identity secret.

Since the bombings at the Boston marathon, France has once again stepped up its security status to ‘rouge renforcé’. According to President Hollande, who checked out the Vigipirate plan at Charles de Gaulle airport on Thursday, this is nothing out of the ordinary. Since the French intervention in Mali, and its position on Syria, indeed, ever since the war in Iraq, France remains on the alert.

This is the new normal.