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Paris: City of Illusion

View from Pont des Arts

I’ve rewritten this article about five times now. It’s late. There are no links. It’s not what most people would consider ‘light entertainment’. But the journalist side of me wants to be responsible. So let’s talk about personal safety in Paris.

False Sense of Security I’ll bet all of you have heard how safe Paris is. How you never hear about shootings and stabbings and muggings in the daily news like back home. And thank goodness they aren’t allowed to have guns here. And we’ll avoid Les Halles after dark because Frommer’s says so. Now I’m going to rain on your parade. It isn’t Harlem, but Paris is no picnic, either. Parisians know there is crime, but no one likes to talk about it, as unpleasant a subject that it is. You’ll be hardpressed to find anything in the French news. But you’ll rarely find anything in the Anglophone publications either. I know. I’ve looked, and all I ever find is ‘watch out for pickpockets.’

Sounds Unbelievable? I don’t want to sound like a party pooper, but Paris is getting more and more dangerous every day, and it’s not just the graffiti and the hoards of young thugs in tracksuits you see everywhere that give this away. Actual statistics of rising crime have appeared in my neighborhood’s local newspaper (arrives free in our mailbox, most people chuck ‘em in the bin with the pizza adverts). Mr. Hall and I live just next to the Pompidou Center, between the Marais and Les Halles. It’s not considered a dangerous area until you cross over Blvd. du Strasbourg onto the Rue St. Denis, so I was not too thrilled to know that crime in the area had risen almost 30% in 1999. I searched the web to find more statistics, stories, warnings, etc. The only site that I found happened to be in English, the Tocqueville Connection. Among the stories of the typical riotous violence that we all hear about during big sporting events and student marches, there were reports from the Paris Police Chief Philippe Massoni :

“…violent crime is on the rise, with more and more incidents of assault and battery,” he said. “Youth gangs and urban unrest are increasing…anti-police violence in certain areas is becoming critical.” According to another article, violence in the schools has worsened (115,660 acts of violence in northern suburban schools the first three months of 1998, of which 115 involved firearms, and 1,084 knives or razors), and the students who are kicked out turn their violence onto those in the streets and on public transportation. We’ve heard it often that some of the suburbs of Paris are very dangerous, but that the city itself is pretty safe. Think of how illogical this is. The gangs of disgruntled youth from the suburbs can ride the metro cars into town just like everyone else (the prolific tagging of the metro cars can attest to this). We can read all sorts of reasons for the growing unrest: high unemployment, racism, anti-immigrant sentiment, harassment by the police, etc. But that’s all politics and society, and it’s not going to protect you on the street to know why you, an Anglophone resident or tourist, have become a target.

Personal Experience If you think I’m being paranoid, I can tell you that it’s not this news that has made me this way. It’s personal experience. I only have begun seeking the news out to confirm the first-hand knowledge that Paris is more dangerous than we think. I, and too many people I know, have become victims of crime. It’s depressing to sit around with a group of friends, rattling off case after case of personal experiences of violence against ourselves and our friends in Paris.

Here is how it goes: friend gets mugged next to cash machine in the 1st, has teeth redone; student punched in the stomach and robbed in broad daylight on crowded street in the 6th, no one helps her; large British friend wearing a suit gets beaten by a gang of men outside a Scottish pub in the 4th, for speaking English, gets jaw wired shut; woman gets beaten and raped on a street in the 5th, man she describes to police has raped 3 other women on that street in 2 months; friend in the 1st grabbed by the ankles and flipped onto her head because she wouldn’t talk to a guy on the street, she wasn’t alone, someone who tried to help was also beaten up; in the 8th, a co-worker gets tear-gassed in the face by someone on the street who didn’t like being ignored, her male friend is punched in the face as well; friend shot outside of a bar by an angry armed bodyguard, same guy was also stabbed in the face with broken bottle in a bar; I was trying to avoid eye contact with a beggar on the metro, he yelled and spit in my face and we ended up getting into a fight, no one helped me.

Crime Remains Out of the Press These are only the violent incidents. There have also been numerous thefts, pickpocketing, verbal insults, being followed, and otherwise intimidated. All of these people mentioned above are residents here, know how to blend in, know what areas to avoid, and don’t walk around with maps and fanny packs, so there is no reason that they should be singled out simply for being foreigners here. Although they may not have had any idea that violence happens in Paris. In 1997, news about a serial killer working the Bastille area (five women murdered in three years) finally reached the public after the mother of a British victim went to the media. People were on the lookout, and he was finally caught. But why didn’t the French police warn people earlier? We can all speculate about the reasons that they don’t want to publicize crime, but the important thing is to know that being aware of the danger is the first step in protecting ourselves and those we care about.

Next week: Some tips on safety in Paris, for visitors and residents alike.

November 2019 Update

I’d like to think that today no one is under the naive impression that Paris is a city without crime. But whether it’s a “safe” city or not remains subjective. After several high-profile terrorist attacks in Paris, the international press went a bit overboard, going as far as to describe certain areas of Paris “no-go zones ruled by Sharia law, where police refuse to patrol” (I’m looking at you, Fox News). While there’s nothing even coming close to the murder rate seen in many US cities, Paris does still have a lot of pick-pockets, muggings, and break-ins (yours truly has been a victim like so many others). If you’re in the center of Paris you’re most likely to have your bag or phone snatched from a restaurant, bar, or even while shopping than in the quieter, residential areas. As usual, be careful with your belongings in public places, whether you’re a tourist or resident. Watch these videos about the typical scams. If you have an apartment, assume that no matter how hard you try, at some point someone is going to break in: keep your irreplaceable family heirlooms and expensive jewelry in a safe, back up your computer files to the cloud, and make sure you’re properly insured.

See the most up-to-date safety information here.

This article is one of the 78 original “Secrets of Paris” articles published between September 1999 and July 2004. After disappearing into the internet graveyard for almost 15 years, I’m publishing them all here, one by one, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Secrets of Paris: “1999-2019: Twenty Years of the Secrets of Paris”

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