THE EEMERGENCY SERVICES
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
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.
MEDICAL EMERGENCIES – SAMU (SERVICE D’AIDE MÉDICALE URGENTE)
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.
POLICE – OR SHOULD THAT BE GENDARMES?
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