Protesting gendarmes confront riot police on streets of Paris

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Gendarmes demonstrated for better pay and conditions on the streets of Paris in an unprecedented act of defiance of their military status.

Gendarmes demonstrated for better pay and conditions on the streets of Paris in an unprecedented act of defiance of their military status.

The protest provoked a brief confrontation between the gendarmes – in full uniform and driving their gendarmerie cars, motorcycles and vans – and a line of shield-carrying CRS riot police, who belong to another force, the Police Nationale.

There is no love lost between the two principal French police organisations. With their usual brusque gestures and blank stares, the CRS refused to let their protesting "colleagues" pass down the Avenue de la Grande Armée to the Arc de Triomphe. The 500 uniformed demonstrators had to take a different route to the regional gendarmerie headquarters at the Invalides.

In theory, the gendarmes, who are part of the French military, are not allowed to strike, demonstrate or join unions. Yesterday's protests, after smaller events in regional cities on Tuesday and Wednesday, are part of a series of public- sector challenges to Lionel Jospin's centre-left government before presidential and parliamentary elections next year.

They are also a symptom of a wider malaise in the unconventional French police and justice system, which has encouraged some commentators to call for the entire apparatus of policing and judicial investigations in France to be re- considered.

Last month it was members of the Police Nationale – the civilian-run force that operates in the cities and towns – who were demonstrating for higher pay, more officers and the repeal of a law that limits the state's powers to imprison people without charge. Most of the police unions appear to have been bought off with a £70 monthly bonus.

The 100,000 gendarmes, who operate mostly in rural France, complain that they are paid less than the police, endure longer hours and work in an increasingly violent world. There have been three shootings of gendarmes, one fatal, in south-west France in the past three weeks. The take-home starting wage for a gendarmerie recruit is £175 a week, slightly less than the official minimum wage in the private sector.

Because of a military rule forbidding demonstrations, the gendarmes did not take part in the police protests last month but sent their wives along, wearing their gendarmerie képis, or peaked pill-box hats, abandoned by other French police in the 1990s.

This week, the gendarmes swallowed their military pride and discipline and poured on to the streets themselves, for the first time in French history. They are furious that the new police bonus does not apply to them and that Mr Jospin, in a television interview on Wednesday, pointed out that gendarmes get "free housing".

The gendarmes complain that the "free housing" consists of often shabby barracks or small houses in wire-fenced compounds, which alienate their families from the communities in which they live. Gendarmes mostly serve away from their home district and are often regarded as a kind of aloof, occupying force by the local people.