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Book review : Gendarmes and policemen on the peripheries of Napoleon’s Empire

Review :

Aurélien Lignereux,

Servir Napoléon : policiers et gendarmes dans les départements annexés de l’Empire, 1800-1814″

Editions Champ Vallon, Seyssel, collection “Epoques”, 2012

30 €

The history of the French Empire has been slowly, but surely reviving in France for the last few years. This latest study by Aurélien Lignereux is a sign of this vitality and also an attempt to create a new dialogue between the French historiography of Napoleon and a history that has been predominantly written outside France, for the last decades, in Great-Britain, in the US, in Italy, or in the Netherlands.

Aurélien Lignereux, who also recently published a new synthesis on the French Empire in the prestigious “L’Univers Historique” series for Le Seuil, is a recognized specialist of the gendarmerie in France, from the Directoire to the first decades of the 19th century,  a subject on which he wrote two books, focusing on the rebellious incidents against the gendarmes in Napoleonic France, and their socio-political significance.

This new study is devoted to a forgotten continent (in the French historiography),the presence of the Napoleonic State in the so-called “départements réunis” or “annexés”, territories that were gradually assimilated to consular then imperial France, and submitted to the same, identical legislative and administrative norms. Unlike the “satellites” of France, as the “sister Republics” or other semi-autonomous French possessions in Europe established under various nominations, the départements réunis are not favored by French historians, who focused also mainly on the “older France”, in its limits of 1791. Too short-lived, too fragile, too unreal for a modern gaze, they were the “parents pauvres” of the French history of the Empire, who lingered on the more traditional French peripheries, the Midi and the West. The first merit of this study is to renew the interest for these unknown extensions of the French system, that were also political and administrative experiments, in a way open by the French revolutionaries of 1789 and 1792.

No doubt Aurélien Lignereux’s curiosity for these peculiar peripheral territories was excited when he studied the rebellions against gendarmes. He was inspired by the new imperial history of the British Empire, too, and the works of Michael Broers on the French Empire, in peculiar Broers’s assumption of the existence of a “frontier” (in the US sense) on the margins or inside Napoleon’s France. This model, based on the study of the French presence in Italy, emphasizes on the inner discontinuities within the French Empire, and refutes the traditional separation between metropolitan France and its satellite territories or subject territories. In a way, the study by Aurélien Lignereux is an attempt to prolonge this hypothesis and to test it on a broader scale, relying on precise and exhaustive data on police and gendarmerie activity and personnels, in the “départements réunis”, that were precisely produced by the moving “frontier”. But his main concern is slightly different from Broers’, though. Lignereux tries to understand the very concrete nature of French rule in those occupied territories, focusing on police and gendarmerie personnels, who were the main and ominous presence of the French State, especially after military occupation and military rule had ceased. So this research echoes also the works of Clive Emsley and his influential essay on Gendarmes and the State in 19th century Europe (1999), assessing the decisive role of the gendarmes in modern State-building among the European countryside. This is not only a history of police personnels, but also an attempt to define what kind of governance was exercised by the conquerant Napoleonian government, on its uncertain peripheries, ranging from the Hanseatic area on the North Sea to the outskirts of Rome, including the actual Netherlands and the city of Geneva, threatening to absorh also Upper Catalonia in Spain.

Aurélien Lignereux deserves a praise for the extraordinary amount of data he collected, on several thousands of gendarmes and the few hundreds of police commissioners who were assigned to the “départements réunis”, drawing useful comparisons between the different territories considered, but also with “older France”. Litteraly two forces of different kind coexisted, with opposed features. The gendarmes were mobile, not staying more than two years in the same location, and  predominantly originated from “inner France”, although they were always mixed with “indigenous” gendarmes, in variable ratios. On the contrary, police commissioners were sedentary (a common feature with “inner France”), rather rooted in local society (although they could be strangers), and frequently born in the country where they worked. It is not clear if this dual system was specifically intended by the French government, or mostly the result of the obstacle of language and the martial function of gendarmerie. It apparently produced in the rural areas and the smallest towns watched by the gendarmes and in the larger towns and cities where police commissioners were assigned, two styles of policing. One may think that the presence of a police commissioner deeply rooted in local, urban society and prone to listen (literally) its complaints, was congruent to a traditional vision of police work in urban context, where negociating order and settling disputes was primordial. On the contrary, as Lignereux suggests, the systematic deployment of bilingual brigades by carefully mixing French and native speakers was clearly not a priority for the government, as the gendarmerie was still in infancy as an investigative police force, and more devoted to surveillance and maintaining “public order”, that is French order. French authorities were even suspicious of a too deep involvement of gendarmes in the local society, beginning with the mastering of the language. Such prejudices, and the “pretorian” nature of the gendarmerie assumed by the government limited the relations between the force and local populations. The consequence was the lack of useful intelligence, as Lignereux demonstrates, although the gendarmes carefully and dutifully filled pages of reports and standardized “tableaux”, to satisfy the curiosity and the typical taste for exhaustive data of the French central authorities of the time.

A significant part of the book is devoted to the experience of the expatriated policemen and gendarmes, foreigners in their own country. The reader will not ignore any more their doubts, their anxieties and melancholy, their boredom in locations remote from France and their “pays”, comparing in their letters Rhenany to Siberia… Women played a part, too, be they legitimate spouses, at their side or distant, mistresses or illegitimate encounters in the local garrison, or local young girls that virile bachelors courted, frequented or married, most of the time under the complacent eye of their superiors, who encouraged “fraternization” and hoped – during the first years – to help the “fusion” of foreign peoples with the French.

This dream was short-lived, although some vivid examples were not rare. People generally resented the French forces and assimilated the police to a foreign presence, although admitting they could be useful. However, the French Empire did not crumble from inside, but was military defeated by invadors. For Aurélien Lignereux, it is the sign that some compromise was in a way attained with some groups of local populations, showing a certain degree of acceptance. Broers demonstrated that French rule was stabilized through a preliminary phase of a certain violence, and the action of “special teams” of policemen, soldiers and gendarmes, where it was difficult to make distinction between the good, the bad and the ugly. The book emphasizes more on the second phase, showing that police forces were rather restraining themselves and trying to respect the rule of law. The real test was the actual prosecutions of policemen and gendarmes by magistrates, revealing the existence of an “état de droit”. Actually, studying rebellious incidents and contestations of police forces, Lignereux shows that the gendarmerie undermined the legitimacy it could gain by fighting against brigands or being spotless, in enforcing conscription or new fiscal regulations (in the territories exposed to smugglers, especially on the shores of the Northern Sea). The precise data collected on these troubles, with the experience gained in Lignereux’s precedent book on this subject), allows to draw fine maps of contestation in the Empire, every great region being dominated by a predominant concern : taxation in the North, traditions and religious issues, conscription. This last topic was not the single cause of agitation, and disturbances were very much linked with local circumstances and policies.

In case of seditious acts, the French always reacted with extreme violence and severity. In this respect, this is more the sign of a “weak State” than the mark of an overwhelming Leviathan or “police-State”. Only violence and fear could subjugate disobedient populations, according to the authorities. The harshness of repression and the expeditive means put in use suggest the precarious nature of the “état de droit” which the French tried to maintain. No doubt it added to the resentment of locals against French rule, and helped the sudden fall of French rule when the Allied armies invaded the departements. Indigenous police personnels took invariably side with their fellow compatriots against the French, except for a few individual exceptions. The dream of a “fusion” was short-lived.

There are interesting pages on the posterity of this experience. Sons and grand-sons of expatriates policemen and gendarmes, sometimes born from mixed couples, “sons of the Empire”, participated to the new imperialist ventures of Napoleon III in Europe and overseas. The book also follows some men who had a new career when France conquered Algeria in 1830 and were sent as lieutenant de police or to command the gendarmerie. Is there a relation, and more than this thread, between colonial expansion and the previous experience of Napoleon’s Empire ? The conclusion is reasonably cautious on this matter, which demands a careful (and further) examination. The circulation of men does not imply the use of the same practices, writes (with reason) Aurélien Lignereux. To answer, it would need a comparison of police practices, and a better knowledge of 19th century police in Algeria. It is very interesting to follow future trajectories, but the book cannot deal with this issue. On the contrary, it would have been very valuable to take the same interest in past trajectories, and to assess what role played the revolutionary experience in the 1790’s among policemen and gendarmes when they were serving Napoleon and the “great Nation”. Here, it could be possible to compare what you could have done in Paris or in Lyon, in 1793 or 1795, and what you would do in Hamburg or Florence. Various names are familiar to historians of the Revolutionary State and its police forces : Capelle, for instance, began as a Parisian section official in the first years of the Revolution, then a police commissionner in the turmoil of the Directoire, in the rebellious capital, before continuing his career on the marchs of Empire. Here I must recall the interest of RIchard Cobb’s Armées révolutionnaires, one of the greatest books on the French Revolution, in which the British historian followed in the military and Parisian archives the fate of the militants of the Parisian armée révolutionnaire. In this respect, the very valuable and extraordinary work done here falls victim of its own virtues, the difficulty to reconstruct complete and long biographies among thousands of individuals. The book is more a synchronic view, than a diachronic study.

Eventually, the book draws in the last pages a comparison with colonial policing. The emphasis on the “rule of law”, the self-restraint of policing in normal times, the egalitarian incorporation of indigenous men does not qualify the policing in use as “colonial”, as it will be developed in last part of  the 19th century and onwards. On this respect, a useful comparison could have been made with the actual French colonies of the time, for establishing the “imperial” nature of policing. Anyway, Aurelien Lignereux pleads in favour of an irreductible originality for the Napoleonean experience, a truly “imperial” form of policing, which is neither national, nor colonial. Therefore, the book is a new contribution to an ongoing debate among historians of “empires” about the nature of the French Empire in the age of Napoleon. This is the reason why it will surely be of great interest for historians, beyond the the circle of specialists of Napoleonean France and of French police and gendarmerie.