Brigadier Anne Fougerat
Few people know a woman colonel was in charge on January 9, 2015, when the Kouachi brothers – who two days earlier had perpetrated a terrorist attack against the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné – holed up in a printing shop in Dammartin-en-Goële.
Anne Fougerat was the colonel in command of the gendarmerie force in the department of Seine-et-Marne, on the eastern edge of Paris. The gendarmerie is a military force in charge of maintaining public order across 95% of the nation. The civilian police force is responsible for urban areas with a population above 20,000.
“This was an exceptional situation,” she tells me in her small office at the Ecole Militaire in Paris which she has occupied since last August when she was appointed the Secretary General of the National Guard, the umbrella created in 2016 over the 75,000 reservists of the four branches of the armed forces. “We set everything up and then once the terrorists were entrenched, I handed over to Lt-General Denis Favier [director of the gendarmerie until August 2016 and twice former director of the elite GIGN counter-terrorism special force of the gendarmerie].”
The Seine-et-Marne job was her second departmental command “which is exceptional,” she concedes, most having only one such command. “Prior to that I'd been responsible for the Haute-Vienne department. I loved those commands because they combined operations and establishing good relationships with local stakeholders.”
Anne studied sciences and maths at school but knew early that she wanted to join a security force. Two years of law sufficed to “discover that I was more attracted by the military values of the gendarmerie” than by the police.
Her career has been exceptional, both because no other woman general has climbed the ranks from non-commissioned officer, and for overcoming “real timidity”, a bit of a handicap for a gendarme!
When she attended the Montluçon gendarmerie school in 1986, barely 1% of gendarmes were female. Today the figure stands at 18% (compared to 22% for the Air Force, 14% for the Navy and 10% for the Army*). Her aim was to join the “Mobile Gendarmerie”, a special unit tasked with maintaining public order, “and my instructors encouraged me saying that even if non-commissioned females could not yet join, they would soon.” But ‘soon’ “took 20 years,” she sighs. And today women still only account for 2% of the specialised operational units of the gendarmerie, 2% of the mountain troops and 11% of the motorcycle troops. “I think this is largely because they doubt their own capacities, but this is part of the feminine make-up,” Anne says thoughtfully. “A woman needs to be reassured, supported. A woman is never certain that she's the best, so we tend to curtail ourselves,” she regrets.
Instead, she became an instructor at the school she had barely just left and whilst there successfully passed the officer's exam “and then I was finally able to join the Mobile Gendarmerie because it was open to female officers.” She became one of only three female platoon commanders, among about 500 nationwide.
She laughs when I ask how demonstrators or rioters reacted when they noticed that the commander was female. “They were often so surprised that they would stop, brick projectile in hand, and ask me questions and that would often suffice to diffuse the situation.”
In her 35 years of service things have not moved forward in a linear fashion for women, Anne explains. “We'll make a sudden leap forward, and then several steps back,” she says, noting that leaps forward generally occur when those in authority are supportive. “The current defence minister, Florence Parly, and her secretary of state, Geneviève Darrieussecq, both pay a lot of attention to this. But there is a gap between the image portrayed and reality” she admits.
“A woman must dare twice as much as a man,” she adds, suddenly passionate. “We have to work twice as hard, not only so that we attain our objectives but also because we have to deal with those trying to hinder us.” But she is against parity. “We will never be like a man and when that difference is accepted then we will have won,” she states. Meanwhile, her advice to young women is “never give up!”
It was during her next job at the officer's training school that she and her, now estranged, husband (a gendarme at the time) had two daughters. The family was moved every three years or so but the girls “both adapted very well and in fact the youngest has just started her gendarmerie training!” she smiles. Help came in the form of a house-keeper and the HR department “always ensured that one of us had an operational job whilst the other had a more desk-bound job and then for our next posting the roles would be reversed.”
In August 2017 she was promoted to brigadier, only the second woman in the gendarmerie to get her stars. The first was Major-General Isabelle Guion de Méritens in 2013.
*figures supplied by the Gendarmerie nationale