There are three main police forces in France: the Police nationale, Gendarmerie nationale and the Compagnie Républicaine de la Sécurité (CRS)

French policemen are addressed formally as monsieur/madame l’agent and colloquially called flics (cops). The police nationale are under the control of the Interior Ministry and are called agents de police.

They deal with all crime within the jurisdiction of their police station (commissariat de police) and are most commonly seen in towns, distinguished by the silver buttons on their uniforms. At night and in rain and fog, they often wear white caps and capes.

The gendarmerie nationale/gardes-mobiles is part of the army and under the control of the Ministry of Defence, although it’s at the service of the Interior Ministry. Gendarmes wear blue uniforms and traditional képis and are distinguished by the gold buttons on their uniforms.

They deal with serious crime on a national scale and general law and order in rural areas and are responsible for motorway patrols, air safety, mountain rescue, and air and coastal patrols.

The CRS is often referred to as the riot police, as it’s responsible for crowd control and public disturbances, although it also has other duties, including life-saving on beaches in summer.

The police can stop you and demand identification at any time (contrôle de papiers), so it’s advisable to carry your passport or residence permit (carte de séjour). If you don’t have any identification, you can be arrested. 

In addition to the three kinds of police mentioned above, most cities and medium-size towns have municipal police (police municipale/corps urbain), who deal mainly with petty crime, traffic offences and road accidents, and there’s a general movement in favour of ‘neighbourhood policing’ (îlotage) throughout France.

While officers of the gendarmerie nationale, the police nationale and the CRS are armed, police municipale aren’t, unless the local préfet and maire decide that they should be.

There are also various special police forces, including the Groupement d’Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale ( GIGN), a sort of SAS unit; the Police de l’Air et des Frontières ( PAF), border guards; the Direction Centrale des Renseignements Généraux ( DCRG or RG), the ‘intelligence’ squad; the Police Judiciaire ( PJ), the criminal investigation department; Surveillance du Territoire ( SDT), a counter-espionage division; an anti-terrorist unit called Recherche, Assistance, Intervention et Discussion ( RAID); and the CSP, anti-terrorist police who guard embassies and government buildings in Paris, who wear blue windcheaters, carry machine guns and aren’t the best people to ask directions to the Eiffel Tower.

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