A British naval officer, on an official visit to France, was cruising happily along the route nationale when he was flagged down by a couple of gendarmes. He wound down his window, smiled and announced cheerily that he had “par bokoo de fronsay.” Then he got a surprise. The younger of the two men in the familiar uniform smiled back and — in tones eerily similar to those of Prince William — told the monoglot mariner that it was “okay to speak English.” Not a routine event, of course, but one quite common in the working life of Nicholas Vyvyan.
So what’s his story? “Well, my parents came to France just thirty years ago and settled in Cagnes-sur-Mer. My father worked for Texas Instruments. I suppose I had a typical expat upbringing. In some ways we were a very British family with strong roots in the U.K. — mainly in Cornwall — but I went to school at the CIV where you get the best of two educational traditions, the Anglo-Saxon and the French. I came out at the end a genuinely bicultural person but if you push me on the point I’m more at home in France and in French because I’ve been here more or less continuously for all my 23 years.”
And how did he come to join the Gendarmerie? “Like a lot of people, after the bac I took a wrong turning. I went to university — first in England, at Canterbury, then in Montpellier. I dropped out both times and I finally realised I wasn’t an academic type. Anyway, one day I looked at some of the careers literature on display for students in Montpellier. I read about the Gendarmerie, liked the sound of it and applied. There was another factor: my father began his working life as an army officer and he helped convince me that the military was an attractive option.” For foreign readers it’s worth recalling here that the Gendarmerie nationale — a force of some 95,000 men (and women) — is, unlike the police, a military organisation which depends on the Ministry of Defence. Their ultimate boss is Michèle Alliot-Marie, not Nicolas Sarkozy.
After initial tests — “they want to see if you’re physically and psychologically suitable for the job” — Nicholas was sent to training school at Tulle to become a gendarme adjoint. “That’s the first stage of the career. It’s rather like a probationary constable in the British police force but it lasts for five years. Then you can go on with further training and examinations to become a fully fledged gendarme, an NCO or — if you’re really ambitious — an officer.” At Tulle, Nicholas was taught to shoot, to drive to the force’s standard and to understand the duties and obligations of a gendarme. “It was a very motivating experience. I acquired a sense of purpose and an appreciation of structured activity that you don’t get in many jobs — and certainly not as a student.”
Nicholas’ first post-ing was to a very small brigade in Briançon. “This was a stroke of luck because I discovered the force as it used to be. Our mission is still to police the countryside but you don’t get many of those small brigades these days. There were just three of us and we were really part of the community. You’d be chatting to the mayor one moment, consoling an elderly woman who’d lost her dog the next.” Did his English prove useful? “Sometimes, yes, especially with tourists — and once in rather sad circumstances. A group of Irish people were visiting locally and a young girl died in a canoeing accident. I had to liaise between them and the local authorities.”
After a year in Briançon Nicholas was posted to Nice. “Unusually I’m currently based in town. That’s because I’m assigned to a special unit which transfers prisoners between jails and carries out security duties in judges’ offices and courtrooms. It’s interesting in several ways. As a silent observer you learn a lot about how the criminal justice system works and then you get to talk to the people you’re escorting. You need to be discreet in what you say to them but again there’s a lot to be learned.”
And how does he see his future? “There are two aspects. Obviously, I’ll work for promotion and I’ll hope to gain experience in different branches of the force — there’s a lot of variety, from airports and motorways to juveniles and investigative work. I’d like to get abroad sometime. We’re active in all the departments and territories overseas and also on U.N. peacekeeping missions. My English should be a plus there — but it’s a bit early to plan my career.” Finally, how would he sum up the appeal of the job? “In one word, it gives you self-respect…”
From Reporter Issue 98