The Moral Strength of the Gendarmerie: Authority and Professional Identity in Early 19th-Century France

By Aurélien Lignereux

If the gendarme is central to understanding the nature and exercise of authority in the nineteenth century, it is not because he is a primary, emblematic figure but because his position is so difficult to define. Does he represent authority? Does he possess authority? Is he simply an agent of authority? Is his authority invested in him individually or does it derive from his status as a member of an institutional whole? Because the gendarmerie failed to be acknowledged by civil and judicial authorities, its officers created a phrase –“the moral force” – to describe the specific kind of influence they were claiming. The phrase is judicious because it allows the gendarmerie to overcome two contradictions: first, that they are a public force which struggles to impose its will on legitimate forms of violence, and second, that they are an armed force which cannot make use of their arms. The gendarmerie benefits from their exploitation of a “moral force” which transcends mere authority. At the same time, however, it demonstrates its submission to the law, in order to better enforce it.


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