All the stuff you never knew you needed to know about life in rural France.....and all the stuff the books and magazines won't tell you.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Control yourself, dear.

Policing in France is split between the Police....the people who fine you for having a defective brake light in town and the Gendarmerie...the people who do it in the country. The Police are a civil organisation and the Gendarmerie military.

Living in the country as I did, it was the Gendarmerie with whom I became familiar.

Their garrisons are dotted about the place, defended from the marauding public by fences and locked gates. Should you wish to communicate with them you have to speak into an intercom on the main gate and if it is not too early, too late, lunchtime, or a bad moment, someone might ask your business and consider letting you in. If it is one of the above factors , then you get a recorded message telling you to telephone another well guarded outpost. There is no public telephone near the Gendarmerie station. If only the U.S. cavalry had worked out this system there would have been no Indian Wars. The guy on the foundering horse riding in to report the massacre would have been stymied immediately.

There is an anxiety to avoid incriminating paperwork....the wing mirror has been ripped from your car?

" We'll give you a certificate for your insurance."

It happens again and a rude note has been left on your windscreen....

"Well, we can't be everywhere and all that is clear from the note is that whoever left it is not a member of the Academie Francaise" -
a body founded by Cardinal Richelieu whose task in life is to keep the French language just where it was in the Cardinal's time.

In my village, at that period, there were two bars, one successful because it possessed the tobacco monopoly...we will return to monopolies in due course...and the other unsuccessful, as it did not. The owner of the latter brooded about the situation and finally, on a Sunday afternoon he filled a bucket with stones and headed for his rival's operation. Alerted by the crash of breaking glass, the beseiged proprietor telephoned the Gendarmerie to report the situation.

"Does he have any stones left?"


"Well, call us when he's emptied the bucket and we'll come round and give you a certificate for your insurance."

As long as there is no record of crime, higher authority cannot enquire into why it was not investigated.

On the other hand, there is great enthusiasm for collecting fines. As long as it is not lunchtime or raining, the Gendarmerie van will be found on the roundabout or tucked into slip roads ready to spring on the passing motorist with requests for his papers. Now, in the interests of road safety, you would think that an inspection of tyres and lights would be appropriate, but this might involve contact with dirt...the papers, on the other hand, are clean and thus may be handled. Apart from which, in the French official mind, checking your papers has nothing to do with road safety...if you watch films about occupied France in the 1940s you will see German soldiers demanding people's papers. Nothing has changed, it is all about control of the population. Let no one say that the French learned nothing from the war.

A chat with one of my neighbours, a small scale farmer, led to the dawning of enlightenment on the nature of the Gendarmerie in the French set up.

He had been heading to the fields one morning in his tractor and crossed the path of the Gendarmerie van. It followed him for miles on dirt tracks until he reached his hay crop at which point he was fined for having a defective brake light. He has a wonderful vocabulary and by his own account let rip in masterful fashion, no verbal holds barred, so was not too surprised to receive notice that he had been fined. What did surprise him was that he had been fined twice..once for the brake light and once for insulting the Gendarmerie.

In those days, all was possible if only you knew how and whom, so he called his insurance agent who was a fixer for the local senator in order to have these offences expunged from his record. In due course, the answer came down from on high. No problem for the brake light, but impossible to overlook insults to the Gendarmerie.

Later, I was reading the local newspaper and picked up this story.

In the south of the department in which I lived, a doctor was making his rounds and pulled up onto the kerb in a village with a narrow road and no parking. He put up his 'doctor calling' card in the windscreen and visited his patient. When he came out, he found two the female of the species is known to the public...prowling round his car.

He was parked illegally.

He was a doctor, making a house call.

He was parked illegally.

He lost his temper, got into his car and pulled away. Later, in his surgery, two Gendarmes appeared. He had attempted to run down the Gendarmettes. In front of the people in his waiting room, he denied the charge, explained the situation and, losing his temper again, asked them why they didn't try to solve a few crimes instead of harassing a busy doctor.

The locals were agog and as news of the incident flew round the farms and villages, snowballing as it went, the doctor thought he would call a halt to this by putting up a notice in his waiting room giving his account of what had happened.

Two more Gendarmes appeared, took possession of the notice and the doctor found himself in court charged with insulting the Gendarmerie. He was found guilty and fined.

So, one cannot insult the Gendarmerie either verbally or in writing. By the way, struggling when arrested makes you liable not for what you were actually doing, resisting arrest, but for 'outrage and rebellion', which is how the French legal system views your act of non submission to authority.

In a village nearby, there is a mussels and chips fair every year, run by volunteers. It is a great success, with about two tons of mussels being consumed at lunch and dinner, and the little bar does a roaring trade in soft drinks, beer and light pink wine, just like any bar at any festivity in rural France.
A couple of years ago, an off duty gendarme went along, and spent the afternoon and evening boozing from a bottle of whisky which he had brought with him. Seeing the state he was in by the early hours of the morning, when people were drifting away, someone offered to drive him home, but he refused. He got in his car, and, clearly incapable, drove into another car on his way out onto the road. The incensed owner of the damaged car followed him, and the gendarme drove away at high speed, determined not to be caught. On the way back to the Gendarmerie station, he managed to run into and over two teenagers on scooters, killing both of them. It is an offence in France to drive while over the limit, and an offence not to stop and give assistance to persons in danger, and a gendarme should certainly know all about this..he has training, after all. He drove straight on for the safety of the Gendarmerie, while the driver of the following car called for assistance and gave chase.
Once in the Gendarmerie, it was clear that his pursuer had his car number plate and was intent on making a report of what had happened. Despite all this, the gendarme was not breathalysed until the mid morning, and even then his test showed him several times over the limit, so goodness only knows what level it was at when he left the event.
By this time, the parents of the dead boys had been informed, and feelings were running high. The gendarmes kept a low profile, while excuses were made for what had happened. The excuse most frequently raised was that the man was not on duty at the time. Then it was the fault of the organisers, for serving alcohol. Then it was the fact that both the dead boys' parents were divorced and thus neglecting their children. Whatever happened, clearly the drunken gendarme could not be held responsible.
People finally decided that they had to protest, and organised a march to the Gendarmerie. However, to avoid the risk of arrest, the march had to be silent....can't insult the Gendarmerie verbally, remember....and the placards had to be non accusatory...can't insult them in writing either.

Your child is dead and you have to watch your language. Life in France demands a great deal of self control, n'est ce pas?

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