Our introduction to La Garde Républicaine came about purely by chance. We just happened to be walking down Boulevarde Henri IV one Sunday afternoon after a visit to Marché Bastille when we stumbled upon an advertising board on the side of the footpath inviting us to a free museum.
Who can resist a museum on a balmy Paris afternoon, particularly a free one? Certainly, not Ruth. But this one had a hint of militarism about it, so the macho in me was immediately aroused. This was not your usual museum of old paintings and statues. It was, in fact, La Salle des Traditions de la Garde Républicaine.
La Salle des Traditions de la Garde Républicaine is a museum dedicated to the traditions of La Garde Républicaine, the ceremonial unit of the French National Gendarmerie. The museum was created in 1984 in a former stable and presents the traditions of La Garde Républicaine from 1802 to the present day, including its infantry, cavalry, and military bands.
Its collections contain about 1,500 items, such as arms, uniforms, equipment, hairstyles, harnessing, musical instruments, models, documents, etc. A special display honours squadron leader Jean Vérine, shot by the Germans for his role in the French resistance.
The museum is also home to La Caserne des Célestins, one of three cavalry squadrons that make up the regiment of La Garde Républicaine à Cheval. That unmistakable aroma of hay and horse manure indicated a significant equestrian presence.
Unfortunately, we could only get glimpses of the horses and their riders as the entrance to the barracks and stables was barricaded. Tours of the site are possible, but their timing did not fit our schedule. We determined to return on our next visit to Paris, which we duly did after booking a tour online at Cultival.
Again by chance, as we were walking towards Quartier Célestins for our tour, just outside Métro Sully-Morland, we came across a contingent of Republican Guards in full regalia (followed by two road-sweepers), returning from a parade in honour of the Queen. It was the day after the 70th anniversary the D-Day landings and there were many dignitaries in town.
The Quartier Célestins is home today to the 140 horses of the 1st squadron and brass band of the La Garde Républicaine.
As the horses had just returned from a parade, some of the stables were off-limits. However, we still managed to get into the Manege Battesti, the large indoor arena where the cavalrymen train daily and public demonstrations are held.
The horses are chosen on three criteria; age (3 yrs), height (166-175 cm) and colour (chestnut, bay, black or grey). The chestnuts go to the first squadron, the bays to the second and the blacks to the third. The greys go to the drummers of the brass band and are chosen for their strength to carry the heavy side-drums.
The checkerboard pattern that is seen on the croup or rump of the horse is created by combing its hair in different directions, creating contrasting areas. Hair spray or setting gel is often used to help the pattern stay in place. Apparently, the pattern has its origin with Napoleon’s cavalry and was designed to confuse the enemy about the real condition of the horses when viewed from afar.
Ten percent of the horses are retired each year and are offered to their riders for one euro on the condition that they are presented for veterinary inspection each year. The retired horses cannot be resold and always remain the property of La Garde Républicaine.
La Garde Republicaine is more than just horses. It comprises two infantry regiments, one cavalry regiment, support staff and musical groups (orchestra and choir of the French army). It is part of the French Gendarmerie and, in addition to its ceremonial role, it is responsible for guarding important national buildings and protecting important dignitaries.
In addition, the motorcycle squadron of the 1st Infantry Regiment escorts 600 organs for urgent transplants every year. It also supports other law enforcement forces, while the cavalry assists with security at major sporting events and general street patrols in Paris.
To serve in the cavalry regiment, the riders must meet the general admission requirements of the gendarmerie (they are first and foremost, police officers), have a minimum height of 170 cm and be declared physically fit to practice riding.
Although our first visit to Quartier Célestins was less than successful, it was, nevertheless, a blessing in disguise as we came across another arm of La Garde Republicaine, the French Army Choir. We ended up attending a magnificent performance at Cathédrale Saint-Louis des Invalides and the choir is now always on our Paris ‘bucket list’.
La Garde Républicaine à Cheval
Quartier des Celestins, 18 Boulevarde Henri IV, 75011
+33 1 58 28 20 72
Métro: Sully-Morland (line 7)
La Garde Républicaine