Realities of Authority in 19th Century Paris

Literary Representations
Lorettes and society

Lower Class Prostitutes and the Law
Representations in Les Miserables
Realities of Authority in Paris
Brothels and Streetwalkers

The Privileged Class: Courtesans

Defining the courtesan
Visual representations
Courtesans in reality




The Hierarchy of Authority

Here we see Fantine at Javert's feet, pleading for mercy from
Javert, after she is arrested. Fantine's body language is so intense
that one can tell the level of emotion felt within her at the prospect
of not seeing Cosette for six months. Javert's expression stands in
direct contrast to Fantine: he looks down, expressionless at her, as if his
heart was made of stone. He represents the cold, unyielding hand
of authority as portrayed by Victor Hugo. But how close is the
character of Javert to the real gendarmes in Paris? {Image
obtained from the online text resource center at the University
of Virginia, available at


It is important to remember that the term "police" is a broad one, and encompasses several varying levels of authority and significance within the society of 19th century Paris. There were the police responsible for the prevention of crime, punishment of criminals and offenders, and patrolling the city streets, there were specific police divisions designated to supervise prostitution in Paris, and monitor it. Also, after the passage of several regulations against prostitution in 1822, these police became responsible for upholding these regulations and making sure they were upheld. The hierarchy of authority among the police force was necessary to preserve their integrity and power.



48 commissaires were put into place, one for each quartier of Paris, who were required to live in the area or neighborhood over which they presided. These officers were forced to work extremely long hours. Their offices, were open from 8 in the morning until 10 at night every day, and in addition to that, each commissaire was on call at all hours of the day, in the event of a disturbance or crime. They were the ultimate authority on the local level: the commissaire was responsible for enforcing the regulations set forth by the July Monarchy, and also responding to health concerns among prostitutes in the area. Many commissaires complained of having to live in these areas, many of which were slums, where low class brothels may or may not have operated their businesses.


Officiers de paix (literally keepers of the peace) were above the commissaires in terms of the amount of power they wielded. Not only did they supervise the "municipal police", but they were the ones who were ultimately in charge of monitoring prostitutes' activity. The officiers de paix questioned prostitutes, and ultimately decided their sentences if they were unlucky enough to be convicted of a crime. It is probably safe to say that of all the police in Paris, these were the ones which instilled the most fear in unregistered prositutes--those who worked the streets and out of the backs of bars, living from customer to customer in order to squeak by, all the time fearing they would be caught.Perhaps Inspector Javert would have been considered an officier de paix.


The Gendarmerie Royale (The royal police force) was an officially decreed force of policemen who obviously policed and patrolled the city to monitor illegal activity, and prevent the spread of unregistered prostitution. This unit was comprised of several thousand men, who "regularly patrolled" the arrondissement they were assigned to, and responded to complaints within that district. The difference between the Gendarmerie and the commissaires was the the Gendarmerie was not required to live in their district, but rather served as a form of Public Safety offcier. Daily logs were sent to the Prefecture of Police by each gendarme of complaints received, arrests made, etc. These reports became invaluable---and provided the only clue as to how many prostitutes there may have been selling their bodies on the streets.

Read on about arrests!