Paris in the Eye of the Tiger

Paris, early 1900s. The French capital hosts the most brilliant minds of the planet. In its skies, the silver shadow of the Eiffel Tower celebrates its tenth anniversary. It stands for the new face of the City of Light: carefree, radiant and optimistic. Its cafés are packed with intellectuals willing to change the world. This is the cultural birthplace of Zola, Hugo and Baudelaire. This is a time of scientific triumph and continual progress. The ‘electricity fairy’ runs magically through Parisian households, and cars overtake wagons along the Haussmann-style avenues. Immortalized by artists such as Monet or Van Gogh, Paris is sparkling like diamonds in the world’s spotlight.

First-ever icebreaker attempt recorded: it happened in France, naturally. The fabulous progress and creativity featuring the country in the early 20th century was such that the epoch earned the nickname ‘Belle Epoque’ (Beautiful Era). However, that term was only coined twenty years later, as the country sunk into diplomatic and social turmoil. (Painting: Le Bar de Maxim’s by Pierre-Victor Galland, 1890).

Popular optimism, though, did not spread to the Parisian headquarters of the ‘Sûreté’, the local police force. The latter, pioneer of criminal investigation – its methods have inspired the creation of Scotland Yard and the FBI, among others – weathered a booming crime level in France. Rising alcoholism, widening inequality between the working and the upper classes and anarchist outburst are said to be its main drivers.

Indeed, the early 20th century featured organized gangs plundering the French countryside, establishing a climate of fear and terror. Such a strained atmosphere pushed for moving into action; Home Secretary Georges Clemenceau thus decided the creation of a special police squad aimed at holding criminals back. And as Clemenceau, known for his cutting punchlines and his political rigidity, was often compared to a ferocious tiger, his newly-created police force inherited the alias ‘les Brigades du Tigre’ (the Tiger Squads).

Clemenceau-style political debate. The man was quite a character: he called himself ‘the first cop in France’ and had a warlike attitude to foreign politics… and politicians in general. He would fight a duel with political opponents, and won a memorable one against Paul Deschanel back in the 1880s. Pretty much sums it all up.

The first advantage of the Tiger Squads was their mobility: though traditional police forces were restricted to a geographical area, the new divisions could bring law and order across the French territory as a whole, working hand-in-hand with local units. That is the reason why they got equipped with modern cars as early as 1910, at a time police officers still rode horses or bikes! Plus, they also used the telephone and telegraph to communicate with one another, and were trained to French martial arts.

Nope, French martial arts do not include one where the main goal is to flee the battlefield as quickly as possible. Actually, Tiger Squads’ recruits were trained to savate (known today as French boxing) and canne de combat, a martial art where fighters use a sort of walking stick as a deadly weapon. (Photo: Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Breakthroughs in terms of criminology also helped Tiger units to take off: a few years before, a discreet copyist at the HQs of the Parisian police had been tasked to ease the process of criminal identification. Doing so, Alphonse Bertillon discovered that a small sample of measurements (size of the nose, of the feet, shape of the ears…) could confirm a culprit’s identity – a process known as anthropometrics. Despite many doubts arising about his mental condition, the system soon got widespread across the world’s top investigation office.

The first-ever mug shot, featuring Bertillon circa. 1900. He also pioneered fingerprints’ technology and ballistics. Remember: without that guy, everybody at the NCIS staff would fail to put anybody behind bars. (Photo: Jebulon via Wikipedia)

In less than two years, mobile squads made about 2,700 arrests, with some sensational catches: the armed robber Jules Bonnot, the mass murderer Landru, Capello’s Bohemian swindlers… At the capital, ill-famed suburbs were cleaned up, while the founding of Interpol in 1923 sealed Clemenceau’s ambitions of a mobile, cooperating police force of international stature. Logo_DCPJ.svg

Four years earlier, however, ‘the Tiger’ had roared for the last time. Despite his belligerent attitude and his twelve duels, he passed away at 88 of natural causes… And even though he disliked this comparison with the feline (“A big jaw and a small brain. That does not look like me”) the politician and the tiger eventually got both their profiles mixed on the insignia of the Head of the Criminal Police.


Author: Nicolas

Ingrédients : 33% d'anecdotes insolites, 19% de livres poussiéreux, le reste de curiosité névrosée. Auteur du Petit dictionnaire des sales boulots (Vendémiaire, 2022). Chroniqueur chez Slate et RetroNews.

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