May 6, 2012

The French Republican Guard

We've all seen them, high above the crowd—the beautiful strong horses and the regal riders in shining helmets topped with flowing plumes, and golden braids looping across their chest. On Quatorze Juillet (Bastille Day), people even line up to watch them come home to the stables on Boulevard Henri IV. They are the cavalry of the Garde Républicaine, one of four regiments ... and proud members of the French gendarmerie.

The Republican Guard (founded in 1802) is responsible for guarding important public buildings, providing honor services for visiting dignitaries, supporting law enforcement, and (perhaps a lesser known fact) transporting organs for transplants.

We were treated to an "inside look" last month, à grace de WICE Director Véronique Kurtz, who went above and beyond normal channels and persisted in the required paperwork so that WICE members could have an up close and personal look at the history, culture, and Caserne des Célestins of the Garde in the 4th arrondissement.

Our charming guide from the Garde (with help from our eloquent translator Monika de Vigneral) offered morsel after morsel of interesting lore as we toured the museum, stables, arena, and even the blacksmith shop.

For example:

The horses of the cavalry are mostly bred in Normandy and are color coded depending on their regiment.

The helmet plumes are color coded also, with the commander wearing the white plume, the officers wearing tri-colors, and all others wearing red.

Their pants are color coded (lots of color coding going on here!), with the white pants brought out for heads of states and the blue pants worn for lower ranking dignitaries.

Each cavalry member works with his/her horse for one hour a day to keep them in top shape.

The decorative helmets weigh 2.2 kilos, have 19 pieces, and are made by the Garde in its own manufacturing center.

The drummers' horses are trained to be guided by the riders' feet, since the drummers' hands are busy drumming.

The Garde makes their own horseshoes (and have to make lots of them!). The shoes get battered by cobblestones and have to be replaced every 40 days or so.

About 10% of the Garde are women.

Back in the early 1800s, when the Garde served the function of tax collectors at the "borders" of Paris, they were required to smoke pipes. If their pipes were cold, it indicated that they had been asleep, tipping off their commanders that they had been slacking. (Now, smoking is forbidden.)

Everywhere we looked, we could see the care these men and women give their horses and the camaraderie they feel with their human and equine buddies. It was an incredible peek into their daily lives. Merci mille fois.

Join upcoming WICE tours—a visit to the Ministry of Finance in Bercy on May 10 and a walking tour of the 6th arrondissement with Lee Hubert on May 15. Plus a special photography salon on the evening of May 10 (as a tribute to Gertrude Stein), complete with wine and review and discussion of the group's photographs.   

Photographs and Post by Meredith Mullins