The name of the mounted constabulary referred to the function of a marshal, who used to be a subordinate to the constable in the royal army of the Middle Ages.
The etymological and historical link between this marshal and the ancestor of the present day gendarmerie lies in the fact that at the end of the Middle Ages, a jurisdiction of marshals was set up known as the mounted constabulary.
The mounted constabulary started as a tribunal, which held in Paris, for the trial of men of war. When required by the dimensions of the kingdom (as from the XIV century), mounted constabulary jurisdictions had to be sent to the armies under the authority of a provost. This somewhat “floating” justice took territorial roots in the second half of the XV century, under the reign of Louis XI. In the XVI century, the mounted constabulary, which still maintained its status of a jurisdiction (right up to the Revolution), became a permanent structure in France, as the royal police covering the entire territory. Mounted constabulary units, with extensive jurisdictions, used to go all over the territory under their control in long cavalcades, leading troops from garrison to garrison. The mounted constabulary’s action was no longer limited to military issues but, under the somewhat formal authority of other royal jurisdictions, it became the armed wing for the extension of the king’s justice.
Highway mounted constabulary
To define what used to be the responsibility of the mounted constabulary (and which has remained the distinctive trait of the action of the gendarmerie), it should be noted that, when it wasn’t about military issues, its mission revolved around matters of the “highway”, a concept relating to both the road and the countryside.
What has remained of the term “highway” as was used in those days is the expression "highwayman". Indeed stagecoach hold-ups do not exclusively belong to the roman tradition. On the contrary, we are broaching the principal preoccupation of the mounted constabulary with regards to public security. The mounted constabulary was particularly reputed for their fight against armed gangs which used to wreck havoc on highways.
As for the cities, they did not, in principle, fall within the jurisdiction of the mounted constabulary. The existence of city police forces was indeed the major element of city charters. But this did not prevent the cities from seeking the help of the mounted constabulary when the local police was overwhelmed, for example they assisted during ceremonies and fairs in keeping guard around inns and cabarets, or during “upheavals” in restoring order. These support forces from the mounted constabulary were called "chevaliers du guet" (watch knights).
It should be recalled finally that under Louis XV, an edict of 9 March 1720 granted the mounted constabulary the foundation of what today constitutes the territorial implantation of the gendarmerie. What motivated the royal intervention was the maladjustment of the large cavalcades of mounted constabulary troops with regards to the actual requirements of public security: when the mounted constabulary carried out an intervention in force at a point within its jurisdiction, it uncovered the rest of it. It was for this reason that the 1720 edict completely reviewed the distribution of mounted constabulary forces. Along the highways, the large cavalcades of armed troops were replaced by small stationary eight-unit brigades, comprising 5 men and 3 officers (nowadays, the composition of the brigades range from 6 to 30 units, with an average quite close to that of 1720). Their action zone extended 4 to 5 leagues before and after the implantation of the brigade, that is, between 40 and 60 kilometres, as is the case today.
The Gendarmerie, an occasional armed combat force
In the course of its evolution, the gendarmerie has often been called upon to go to the front even though its fundamental mission is not warfare. Its flag is decorated with the names of several battles in which it participated to defend the republic and the empire:
For the Regional Gendarmerie:
For the Republican Guard:
Two hundred republican guards died for France during the First World War. During the Second World War and over the long years the French territory was under occupation, many republican guards joined the Resistance, within which several of them ended up paying for their commitment with their life.
A Gendarmerie check in Algeria
The Gendarmerie subsequently participated in Overseas Campaigns (OPEX): during the Indochina War from 1945 to 1954, and in AFN from 1952 to 1962.
Since 1984, and still within the OPEX framework, the national guard has served in Lebanon, Algeria, Kosovo, Rwanda, Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast), and in various countries of the former Yugoslavia.
Modern time Gendarmerie
Since 1921-1926, a section of the national guard, known as the mobile gendarmerie, to distinguish it from the regional gendarmerie and the specialized units, has been living, not in brigades but in quarters, and has been charged with various missions. Subtle differences in the outfits of the regional and mobile gendarmerie corps distinguish them; while the facings and stripes of the regional gendarmerie are silver, those of the mobile gendarmerie are yellow.
L'escadron motocycliste de la gendarmerie départementale
14 juillet 2007 - Champs Elysées - Paris Collection PC FNCV
We have just mentioned the fact that the gendarmerie like the national police, has since the Second World War been undergoing specialization in order to adapt to new forms of criminality and to new civil security requirements. The specialized gendarmerie units include the national guard criminal investigation institute (criminal and scientific police), the mountain gendarmerie, the air gendarmerie, the maritime gendarmerie, the prestige and musical units, and especially the GIGN (national guard intervention unit), created in 1974, which, in France, was the first specialized force in the fight against terrorism and the taking of hostages.
L'Ecole des officiers de la gendarmerie nationale (EOGN),
défile en tenue de tradition. Devise: "La Patrie, l'honneur et le droit"
14 juillet 2007 - Champs Elysées, Paris Collection PC FNCV
Signification of the emblem
The general insignia:
The insignia is silver for the regional gendarmerie, and gold for the mobile gendarmerie and the republican guard.
The XV century helmet is reminiscent of the genesis of the gendarmerie: "constabulary company, gendarmerie and mounted police of France" commanded by the grand provost general.
Each corps or detachment has a distinctive removable shield, which is the general insignia of the national guard.
The double-edged sword:
The double-edged sword symbolizes force as a law enforcement instrument.
The civic crown:
The civic crown, formed by two oak branches, is reminiscent of the fact that the primary mission of the gendarmerie is the protection of citizens and the provision of assistance to persons in danger.
The grenade became the emblem when the mounted constabulary became the national guard on February 17, 1791. The grenade, a much coveted sign of prestige under the Ancient Regime, used to be the emblem of "grenadiers", an elite military troop.