Is the widespread pickpocketing in Paris a sign of a larger social malaise? Photo: Olivier Reis
Just before midnight last week, I heard screams through my window. “Stop him! Stop him! My bag! My bag!” Looking out, I saw a middle-aged man desperately trying to catch up with a fit young thief of only around 14 who had just grabbed his wife’s handbag. Running with long strides, the boy was clearly more than a match for his valiant but less agile pursuer.
It was well planned: As my street is a quiet one leading onto another quiet street, by the time the thief had reached the end of it, he would have been safe. And the young drinkers hanging out in front of the bars on the Rue Amelot – decent types, rowdy intellectuals who would surely have stepped in had they realized the situation – wouldn’t have heard the woman’s screams. This situation is sadly commonplace in Paris and paints a negative picture of the state of Parisian society.
I was with a group of friends one night in the Marais when an attractive young man approached one of the group, started chatting with him and playfully nudging him. Before we knew it, he had deftly taken my friend’s wallet from his back pocket (though why any man still carries his wallet in a back pocket is beyond me). Caught in the act in the nick of time, he gave it back and quickly walked away, pursued by exclamations from the group that it would be inappropriate to repeat here.
When guests come to Paris, I always warn them to watch their bags and wallet when out and about, since major cultural events and crowded streets make rich pickings for today’s Artful Dodgers. You can argue that this type of precaution is merely sensible advice in any capital city, but I have only ever witnessed such blatant robbery so closely in Paris.
Having had my wallet so craftily nicked in a bar one night that I didn’t feel a thing – I blame jeans with baggy pockets – I now make it a point to always walk around with my wallet in my front pocket and my hand on the top of it most of the time, especially when among crowds. I have become rather paranoid about the whole pickpocketing issue, taking it as inevitable that my wallet will get stolen on a night out unless I wear tight trousers and keep my wits about me at all times. The perpetrators are masters of their game and are likely to pounce on any opportunity.
For those operating on the wrong side of the law, I guess their “trade” is a way of getting the money to survive, and, let’s face it, life without money in Paris is not much of a life at all. That is not to justify the thieves’ actions by any means, but to put it into some kind of wider social context. Would the same crimes take place in a city that many people could actually afford to live in, or where there was less disparity between rich and poor? It looks as if these ideals are off the cards, hence the venom directed at right-wing President Nicola Sarkozy, who many of my friends believe is a major step in the wrong direction.
One lefty friend said to me during the presidential election campaign: “If Sarko gets in, there will be war.” A dancer I know used exactly the same words, as if she were willing it to happen, a political summer storm to break the tension of an overheated social situation. The question is, who is going to start it?
In the past, France was always ready to rise up against its rulers under the banner of social equality. An entertaining art documentary I saw on Arté said that back in the day, no one mounted the barricades as readily and as quickly as the Parisians, who would throw the household furniture into the streets in preparation for another battle with their political leaders.
This kind of change only ever comes from the grassroots, but neither of my friends who mentioned civil war seemed willing to throw the first chair, the difference being that people are now far too individualistic and attached to their consumer goods and the money that will pay for them. Few will be ready, for example, to throw the Habitat canapé into the street (“What a waste of a good sofa!”).
Times have certainly changed, though if anyone were to change them again, at least in this part of the world, my money would still be on the French to lead the way, as I believe they take social justice to heart. Some French people I have chatted with say that the French don’t even like money; they just live with the system. If they one day decide en masse to opt for something different, then maybe the woman at the cash machine will be able withdraw her money safely, my friends won’t need to be warned about pickpockets, and I can wear baggy trousers again.
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© 2009 Paris Update