Defence and Government Action at Sea

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Secretariat General of the Sea (attached to the Prime Minister’s office) 

The Secretariat General of the Sea has interministerial responsibility for the monitoring, evaluation and long-term planning of maritime policy. It is involved in mapping out public policies regarding the sea and coastline and co-ordinates government action at sea through the Maritime Prefects in mainland France and through government representatives overseas. It is attached to the Prime Minister’s office and also serves the minister with responsibility for the sea in matters concerning him. 

The Secretary General 'of the Sea' chairs the Executive Committee of the coastguard function which is made up of all administrations with maritime activities. This committee helps to determine the policies conducted for the coastguard function, and to identify priorities for action and the resulting organisational measures. 

France has a Coastguard Operations Centre (CoFGC) which operates under interministerial authority. Placed with the Secretariat General of the Sea, the CoFGC keeps a round-the-clock watch on maritime events, maintains a record of the latest developments in international maritime affairs, provides a central base to help monitor crises with a maritime dimension and carries out analyses in order to propose changes to the organisation of the coastguard function. The CoFGC is one of the natural points of contact for the centres of other countries or European or international institutions providing the same services. 

The Maritime Prefect 

Under the decree of 6 February 2004 on government maritime related operations known as l’Action de l’État en Mer (AEM), the Maritime Prefect, who is a government delegate and direct representative of the Prime Minister and of each minister, is vested with State authority over all areas covered by the AEM. 

With powers of coordination in a crisis situation, he is today the chief authority in all maritime spheres, notably in defending the sovereign rights and interests of the nation, maintaining public order and protecting people and property. He has the resources of the French Navy (Marine nationale) at his disposal, as well as those of the Maritime Gendarmerie, the Department of Maritime Affairs (DAMGA), Customs, Civil Defence and the assistance of the Société Nationale de Sauvetage en Mer (see page 72). 

Maritime Gendarmerie: government action at sea, maritime protection and fisheries police 

A specially trained division of the National Gendarmerie, placed under the Chief of Staff of the French Navy, the Maritime Gendarmerie is a fully-fledged operational component of the Navy. A service firmly focused on the sea, it is stationed 

over the entire coast of mainland France and overseas, and also at Naval facilities and some large civil ports. 

With a complement of 1,089 service personnel, one third of which have the rank of criminal investigation officers, the maritime gendarmerie is made up of: 

  • three groups placed under the maritime prefects; 
  • a search and rescue section; 
  • a national training centre; 
  • 72 units, 33 of which with sea-going capability, providing full cover in continental France and the overseas territories. 

The diversity and complementarity of the facilities allow the gendarmes to operate up to 200 nautical miles offshore to protect the environment, preserve the fisheries, combat all kinds of illicit trafficking, and provide maritime security for large ports in addition to their normal defence operations. The only force vested with a general policing authority at sea, the Maritime Gendarmerie carries out administrative policing operations under the authority of the Maritime Prefect and also important, often sensitive criminal enquiries under the responsibility of the magistrates. 

Direction générale des douanes et des droits indirects (Customs and Excise) 

The action of Customs helps to prevent illegal activities at sea, notably smuggling and illicit trafficking of goods and people. Its functions also include navigation control, coastal surveillance, protection of the marine environment (marine pollution prevention), control of the legal status of ships and protecting and assisting people in distress. 

Customs, with 16,665 agents (37.5% female) including 597 seagoing personnel, has 2 coastguard cutters of 43 m, 18 coastguard launches of 19 to 32 m, 17 inshore surveillance craft of 10 to 14 m, 3 training vessels, 18 aircraft including 2 fitted with a remote marine pollution detection system (POLMAR) and 9 helicopters (including 5 EC135). 

Civil Defence 

Civil Defence participates in coastal and offshore life-saving operations with 35 EC145 helicopters at 24 bases and up to 7 detachments in continental France and overseas. Of the 24 bases, 15 are located near the coast and have trained personnel and special equipment for carrying out sea rescue operations. 

Marine nationale

The Navy operates: 

24 hours a day, 365 days a year, in all the oceans and seas of the world, with 35 ships at sea, at least 1 missile launching nuclear submarine at sea, 5 aircraft in the air, and marines and commandos deployed; or nearly 5,000 sailors on, under and above the sea serving France and the French people. 

  • 39,000 men and women including 3,000 civilians 
  • 10 submarines 
  • 72 combat and support vessels 
  • nearly 200 fighter, patrol and reconnaissance aircraft and helicopters 
  • 15 marine and commando units 

Every year the French Navy recruits and trains up to 3,000 young people from 16 to 29 years of age, from 9th grade up to postgraduate level. (



Its remit is: 

  • Prevention: A presence in every sea to prevent a crisis arising. 
  • Knowledge and anticipation: Observation from the sea of the strategic movements taking place in the world. 
  • Protection: Safeguarding the population against sea-borne threats. 
  • Intervention: Dispatching a naval force to restore peace. 
  • Deterrence: The threat of a total response against anyone who would attack France's vital interests. 

As part of the defence strategy of France, the missions of the French Navy fall into three main categories: 

  • By maintaining a continuous presence in every sea in the world, it makes a decisive contribution to deterrence, possesses the knowledge of theatres necessary for anticipation, and helps in crisis prevention. The Navy also protects the national territory and its maritime approaches and is present in zones where France has a strategic interest. It safeguards maritime flows and resources in particular. 
  • As the armed division of Government Action at Sea, it engages in the fight against illegal trafficking (narcotics, terrorism) and marine pollution, defends the maritime zones under French sovereignty and participates in search and rescue operations. 
  • Finally, it takes part in the external operations in which our armed forces are engaged, alone or in coalition, such as those currently under way over Iraq (Chammal), Mali (Barkhane), in the Gulf of Guinea (Corymbe) and in the Indian Ocean (Enduring Freedom). 


Maritime Affairs Administration 

The Department of Maritime Affairs (DAM), an official government department within the General Directorate of Infrastructures, Transport and the Sea of the Ministry of Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy (MEDDE), formulates and implements government policies and laws on a range of issues relating to sailors and their profession, such as training, health and employment law, as well as ship safety and security, shipping surveillance and maritime signalling, and control of maritime activities, the merchant fleet, yachting and nautical leisure activities. 

The Department of Maritime Affairs is supported by a network of Interregional Directorates for the Sea (DIRM), which operate along the seaboard to ensure that the government's maritime policies are implemented in a coherent and integrated manner. At the level of France's administrative 'departments', the sea and coastal agencies (DML) within the county land and sea directorates (DDTM) implement these policies. These services, at the heart of the maritime sector, have the traditional responsibilities of ship safety, the health and welfare of seamen, vocational training, etc. as well as those of surveillance and control (fisheries policing, ship movement surveillance, search, rescue and assistance at sea, pollution surveillance and reporting). They also have a pivotal role in new measures such as the Marine Strategy Framework Directive and marine spatial planning. 

The system of control and surveillance consists of ocean going vessels (two patrol boats of 46 and 52 metres based in France and a third of 54 metres at La Réunion; 3 regional cutters) and 60 smaller vessels spread over 21 coastal units. These units are deployed mainly on fisheries protection, coordinated by the National Fisheries Protection Centre (CNSP), and environmental policing duties at sea under the aegis, on a trial basis, of the Marine Environment Surveillance Operational Centre (COSMM) 

2,000 maritime affairs agents are distributed on the coast in the branch offices, in the 7 CROSS (regional operational surveillance and rescue centres) and 2 MRCC (maritime rescue coordination centres), as well as in the 16 CSN (ship safety centres) responsible for vessel inspections. 

The Department of Maritime Affairs provides the following specialised services: 

Navigation Aids: lighthouses, marker buoys and beacons 

The system of aids to navigation on the coasts of France and its overseas territories comprises around 6,500 maritime signalling establishments (lighthouses, signalling towers, buoys, etc). This service is responsible for providing and maintaining a beaconing system enabling navigators to locate their position and avoid hazards. 

Security, surveillance, search and rescue: CROSS 

The 7 regional operational search and rescue centres (CROSS) use the naval and air resources of the administrations and bodies engaged in Government Action at Sea. 

The 2 MRCC (Maritime Rescue Coordination Centres) in Papeete and Nouméa complete the system, enabling France to fulfill its life-saving obligations in the immense areas of the Pacific under its responsibility. As part of the plan to introduce the Community maritime traffic monitoring and information system, DAM has introduced the TRAFIC 2000 system, the national entry and exit point to the European Union's network SafeSeaNet. 

TRAFIC 2000 is also associated with the French Navy's SPATIONAV programme, which monitors sea traffic by AIS (automatic identification system) off French coasts. 

CROSS centres also have operational responsibility for the sea pollution surveillance system CleanSeaNet and the European Long Range Identification and Tracking (LRIT) data centre established by the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA). 

In more general terms, the Department of Maritime Affairs is making a special effort to develop its information systems, to enable the CROSS's, the maritime safety centres and the maritime signalling services to fulfil their missions of search and rescue at sea, supervising sea traffic and hazardous goods, monitoring pollution, tracking ships and overseeing maritime signalling establishments. 

The management and quality system of the ship safety inspection services and the 5 mainland CROSS's are EN ISO 9001/2008 certified. 

Sea Rescue 

Together with the Navy, the merchant navy, the fishing fleet, pleasure craft, and inshore service craft, the SNSM (see below) is the “6th component” of France’s “navies”. Although not under direct State control, it does play a key role in public safety. 


The French lifeboat service SNSM is a “Public Utility” established under the French law of associations of 1901. It operates on the basis of volunteers committed to saving life at sea. Around 18% of its budget of E 24.7 M comes from State subsidies and 82% from private donations. 

The SNSM fleet is made up of 215 lifeboats and over 107 rigid inflatable boats operated by: 

  • 4,400 lifeboat crew volonteers, 
  • 1,200 volunteers in lifeboat stations and lifeguard training centers, 
  • 1,400 summer lifeguards on beaches, 
  • and more than 70 employees working mostly in the Paris headquarters. 

SNSM has a very close-knit network of 187 permanent maritime stations plus 32 Lifeguard Training Cent res t raining over 500 new lifeguards every year. The results speak for themselves: over 50% of life-saving operations in Metropolitan France is carried out by the SNSM, 27% of these at night! 

Maintaining the capacity and resources of the SNSM is an important challenge for the nation.