Policing the Seine


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Photo by Chris Card Fuller ©2007

According to Blake Ehrlich’s chapter about the Paris River Police in his book Paris on the Seine, taking a walk on the riverfront used to be begging for trouble- that was way back at the turn of the 20th century. Since then, the Paris’s River Brigade whose sole responsibility would have been the river and its quais, has diminished in a big way. (Considering that Paris on the Seine was published in the 1960s, I’m wondering if the River Brigade still exists (it numbered 33 policemen at the time of writing). Correction: The Paris River Brigade does most certainly still exist and number 60 rather than 33 according to their website. They continue to assist in matters concerning boat traffic, pollution, etc.

In 1905, the brigade rid the Seine of its last river pirate gang. From that point, the duties included fishing suicide corpses out of the river-and catching barges in the process of illegal dumping. Pickpockets used to do a brisk business in those days – nowadays the pickpockets gravitate toward the busiest tourist attractions – museums, metro lines and buses that crisscross the Right Bank.

Erlich’s chapter on the Paris police is interesting for many reasons. First of all he corrects the often mistaken tendency to call these police ‘gendarmes‘. Gendarmes are members of the national policing force under the umbrella of the Department of Defense.

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Parisian policemen would be considered part of the Police Municipale and called gardiens de la paix or agents de police.

One group of gendarmes that you may bump into in Paris would be the members of the Garde Republicaine de Paris (as pictured in the photo). On horseback they look almost as if they’ve time-traveled from an earlier era.

The Paris Prefect of Police has much broader functions than police departments of other cosmopolitan cities. Here are just a few:
Registering all vehicles and drivers’ licences. Deciding who will sell lottery tickets, who will operate bookstalls on the quais, issuing passports and identity cards, condemning unsafe buildings, rat eradication, maintaining pure food and drug control, operating the Morgue, etc. the list goes on.

Erhlich states in France, the police are not there to enforce the law simply because the law exists. He explains: “The law exists, in regard to almost every question, in geologic layers. If the weight of all the centuries of accumulated statues were applied, the nation would be crushed and petrified under it. As the police see it, their work is to keep the community functioning with the least possible disorder.”

From our own experiences in Paris, I would tend to agree with Erhlich’s comments. Especially in peaceful times – one always senses that security is being addressed but in a very unobtrusive way (that would have been up until today!) See next post regarding the Gare du Nord ‘disturbance’.

This is the first chapter that I’ve read from Paris on the Seine – there are many more details about the Paris Police that are well worth reading to better understand the various branches and their functions.