Tuesday, December 7, 2010

It's not Inspector Clousseau

The French police system grows more confusing all the time. Maybe that's because Napoleon designed it that way. Civil law enforcement and the military police were structured separately but with semi-equal powers and conflicting arenas to avoid his being toppled. Waterloo did that. But Napoleon's structure is still in place. The little man still rules from the grave. Sarkozy for all his faults and more faults is in the process of streamlining, simplifying, centralizing and re-organizing the police and military services who tread on each other's riot boots. And they're not happy about it one little bit.
(See a similarity maybe small men, big ideas, glamorous wives that Napoleon and Sarko might have in common?)
But this mutual hostility in the forces goes back to Napoleon's time. What's new?
What will really change? Much of France falls under the Gendarmerie, a military force, the Gendarmes who enforce national law outside of Paris, in the countryside under the Ministry of Defense. The Police Judiciare, in Paris, in under the Ministry of Interior and so is the Renseignements Generaux, RG a very FBI-like hydra headed intelligence branch but do their own thing ie. run investigations independently. Needless to say the RG are not any one's favorite lists. But this part always confuses me and since it's changing suffice it to say the Police Judiciare - only in Paris - run their own turf and the Brigade Criminelle - the elite homicide unit handle murder and cases that perplex most others.

Not that they can't be outmanuevered by their sort of military equivalent also with power in Paris. Diferent SWAT units, counter terrorist teams get muddled here and like always I reach for a drink when this gets explained to me.
We're sitting in the Great Canadian, a noisy pub on the Seine right across from the famous 36 quai des Orfévres where many of my drinking companions work in Brigade Criminelle. Small tables huddled in the back, beer spilt and stories. Lots of stories.
I'm really impressed by these guys, actually, they're sharp, funny, self-deprecating and I like them. Even a counter terrorist specialist who speaks several Arabic dialects, is a computer whiz and shoots 15 our of 15 with this Sig Saur on target at the firing range we've been to.
He's a big bear of a man in a teddy bear way but I'd definitely want him on my side. Not the other way around. The take I get on these French flics is the human side. Maybe it's the beer talking but when I ask them about the case that's most got to them in their careers, it's the look in their eyes, this story they tell and it's not about 'the one who got away or the guy I couldn't put inside but will' it's the human toll they've witnessed at a homicide. I hear those stories; a sociopath's calm and bored recounting of why he murdered his mother and a good samaritan who came to her aid, looking into the faces of a kidnapped victim's family and informing them 'the operation wasn't successfull' after living with them for three weeks, a father who murdered his children and wife then changed his clothes and took the dog for a walk.
I asked one of them 'how do you do this work and not let it affect you, your home life?' He shrugged. 'It's my job, first of all, it's dealing with a dirty side of life everyday. I'm divorced; left the suburbs, the house, the wife and now share our children but right now all I'm thinking about is painting my daughter's room this weekend in our new apartment. And hoping we can agree on a color.' I sense something else behind his eyes and then it's gone.

(btw in January Murder in the Marais is being re-issued and with a new cover)

Cara - Tuesday


  1. Cara, the new cover is stunning.

    Despite my exhaustive reading of police procedurals, I can't understand the differences in Italy's police groups. Donna Leon's Guido Brunetti and Andrea Camilleri's Salvo Montalbano don't belong to the same organization as Michael Dibdin's Aurelio Zen. All I know is that Brunetti and Montalbano stay in the same place and Zen travels through Italy.

    In the US, the antipathy between the city and state police forces and the FBI have grown from the many examples of the local police doing all the work and the FBI stepping in and taking the credit. The Unibomber was caught because Ted Kazcynski's brother made a deal with the FBI. He demanded an absolute guarantee that his brother would not be executed. When he was sure that he would not be the instrument of his brother's death, he gave the FBI all the information they needed to find Kazckynski in his shack.

    The FBI claimed it was through their exhaustive investigation that this man was found. If it were not for John Kazcynski, who recognized his brother's beliefs in the Manifesto that Ted had demanded be printed, Ted would still be in his cabin in Montana and the FBI would still be chasing their tails.

    I don't suppose anyone knows if the leaders of any of the various police groups in France are cross-dressers.


  2. Thank you Beth! I think they did a brilliant cover, too.
    Regarding cross dressers in the Police - there was one guy who sipped his beer pretty dainty but then again he's head of the Counter terrorist unit :)

  3. Cara--

    I'm with Beth. The new cover for "Marais" is stylish as hell.

    Your post was especially interesting. Both for the history of how the French law enforcement agencies are structures, and for the portraiture of the cops.

    I think every cop has a tipping point as to when he or she has simply absorbed too much.

    Back in the 1960s I knew a guy who was a lawyer well as a cop. In those days underage offenders weren't officially in the criminal justice system. They were given "hearings" that were presided over by a judge. Because these weren't "trials," the DA's office couldn't assign prosecutors to handle them.

    For some bureaucratic reason it fell to the NYPD to supply lawyers for that purpose. This cop was one of those.

    It was the only assignment he asked out of in less than a year. He said he just didn't want to spend his days immersed in the details of prosecuting cases like that of a nine-year-old who killed his three-year-old sister by force-feeding her Drano. He cited a few more, equally horrific examples.

    This was a guy who'd worked undercover in bad neighborhoods. He could live with the savagery of adults, but not with constant reminders of how some sociopaths get busy soon as they are able to walk and talk.

    When people complain about the generous pension plans police unions have won over the years, they have no visceral sense of what these officers have handled on behalf of everyone else.


  4. Cara,

    The situation is even more complicated than it sounds in the blog post. The old Renseignements Généraux have now been absorbed into the new Direction centrale du renseignement intérieur (DCRI - in English, the Central Directorate of Interior Intelligence) which was created in 2008 by the merger of the Renseignements Généraux (RG) and the Direction de la surveillance du territoire (DST). The old RG had a headquarters building in Paris, but the new DCRI is in Levallois-Perret, just outside the city.
    John Gaynard

  5. John

    Thanks for more elucidation on this.
    I was told the computer security division is out in Levallois-Perret, too.
    My RG contact, Monsieur X, seems to still have his office near the Prefecture. We met in November at cafe au depart at Place Ste Michel since he tells me it's five minutes from his 'work'.