If you find your­self in an emer­gency sit­u­a­tion in France, it’s im­por­tant to know who to call. Kate McNally en­sures that you will be well-pre­pared for any even­tu­al­ity

Living France - - INSIGHT -

in­d­ing your­self in an emer­gency sit­u­a­tion is inevitably a fright­en­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, es­pe­cially if lives are at stake. Time may be crit­i­cal, so for any­one liv­ing or plan­ning to live in France, it is im­por­tant to know the op­er­a­tional struc­ture of the French emer­gency ser­vices so that you have a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of pro­ce­dures and know how to re­act and what to ex­pect.

In gen­eral, the sys­tem in France is sim­i­lar to other coun­tries in that they have the three prin­ci­pal emer­gency or­gan­i­sa­tions: am­bu­lance, fire and po­lice. How­ever the set-up of th­ese re­sponse units is in some cases rather dif­fer­ent from those with which we are fa­mil­iar in the UK and, more im­por­tantly, there is not sim­ply one catch-all emer­gency num­ber. That said, if you are ever in any doubt about the num­bers, use the EU-recog­nised emer­gency ser­vices num­ber, 112.


The SAMU is the first point of con­tact for emer­gency med­i­cal re­sponse. It con­sists of a call and re­cep­tion cen­tre as well as an emer­gency first aid train­ing cen­tre. Calls are fielded by ‘ as­sis­tants de régu­la­tion médi­cale’, who are trained to ask the nec­es­sary ques­tions to iden­tify the per­son, the lo­ca­tion and the prob­lem. They log the re­quest, as­cer­tain the de­gree of ur­gency, and de­cide whether the res­i­dent doc­tor in charge needs to speak to the caller.

SAMU as­sis­tants and/or the res­i­dent doc­tor are re­spon­si­ble for se­lect­ing and co­or­di­nat­ing the ap­pro­pri­ate re­sponse. This could range from ar­rang­ing for the lo­cal on-call doc­tor to tele­phone or visit the caller, to send­ing out a reg­u­lar am­bu­lance or a mo­bile in­ten­sive care team, to re­quest­ing im­me­di­ate re­sponse from first aid trained fire­fight­ers, or even, if nec­es­sary, po­lice or army rapid as­sis­tance.

As part of the state hos­pi­tal ser­vices, each SAMU comes un­der the ju­ris­dic­tion of their par­tic­u­lar re­gional health au­thor­ity (or depart­ment) and op­er­ates as part of the na­tional health sys­tem. Hence, pay­ment for any emer­gency health­care is partly state-sub­sidised, with the rest ei­ther cov­ered in full or part by the pa­tient’s pri­vate health in­sur­ance ( mutelle) or, in the case of no pri­vate in­sur­ance, charged to the pa­tient. In the case of ac­ci­dents, third-party in­sur­ance may come into play.


For those vis­it­ing France, the po­lice sys­tem can ap­pear some­what com­pli­cated. For ev­ery po­lice of­fi­cer, there is a gen­darme, or even a mem­ber of the CRS (Com­pag­nies Répub­li­caines de Sécu­rité)! That’s not strictly true, as there are in fact many more gen­darmes than po­lice of­fi­cers, or policiers as they are called in French. So which is which and who does what?

First up, a key dif­fer­ence be­tween policiers and gen­darmes is that the for­mer are civil ser­vants and op­er­ate un­der the ju­ris­dic­tion of the In­te­rior Min­istry, while the lat­ter are sol­diers un­der the ju­ris­dic­tion of the Army and the Min­istry of De­fence. Ac­cord­ingly, policiers can leave the po­lice force if they so wish, while gen­darmes sign on for a de­fined length of ser­vice.

The po­lice are made up of po­lice na­tionale – within which there are cer­tain spe­cial­ist sec­tions such as road po­lice, moun­tain po­lice, in­ves­tiga­tive po­lice – and po­lice mu­nic­i­pale who are em­ployed by, and un­der the au­thor­ity of, the lo­cal mayor or com­mu­nauté de com­munes, whichever is re­spon­si­ble for polic­ing the area.

The po­lice na­tionale in­cludes a divi­sion re­spon­si­ble for na­tional se­cu­rity, which has the largest bud­get and the largest num­ber of per­son­nel: around 78,000 em­ploy­ees. It also in­cludes the po­lice ju­di­ci­aire spe­cial branch, re­spon­si­ble for le­gal in­ves­ti­ga­tions, a spe­cial­ist pro­tec­tion divi­sion, and the CRS, who are re­spon­si­ble for main­tain­ing pub­lic or­der.

The gen­darmerie na­tionale op­er­ates across

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