When austerity isn't picking our pockets street thieves are



Paris is a wondrous place in May.
The lilacs are in bloom, the waters of La Seine are high after weeks of spring showers and the gangs of street urchins from Eastern Europe are in peak season.
I encountered this latter phenomenon in its natural habitat last week, just off the Avenue George V, directly opposite the gilded glass doors of the newly renovated and luxurious Hotel Prince De Galles.
I was at a Barclays cash point machine, having been directed there by the concierge at the Prince de Galles who assured me the bank was a "mere step" from his doors and I would be back before I knew it.
The Eastern European street urchins had an alternative plan, however.
No sooner had I entered my secret personal identification number into the Barclays machine and ordered up some euros than a small boy with a woefully grubby face appeared at my right.
He rustled a small square of newspaper over the cash point keyboard with one hand and motioned with three fingers and a thumb towards his mouth with the other in the international sign language gesture for "I am hungry".
I responded simultaneously in fluent French and the international sign language gesture for "you'll get a good clip round the ear if you don't skedaddle young man".
My card popped out of the machine. Thankfully I pocketed it before the hungry boy's friend leapt onto the scene like Zinedine Zidane going up for a high cross in the six yard box, cleared his throat audibly and spat in my face. "Somebody hasn't brushed or flossed today," I thought.
With my back to the cash point, shielding the euros that an audible beeping told me had arrived, I repeated my instruction that the tiny thieves should quit the scene, with a few colourful additions for authenticity.
At this point a third and fourth dirty-faced boy arrived. These two were slightly bigger than their friends, but still tiny in comparison to my bulky frame and clearly malnourished. Their eyes were sunken and circled with grey, their filthy cheekbones were high and prominent, their arms and hands all bone, no flesh.
As a father of a young boy I could not help but think in exasperated tones: "Stop that this instant and get upstairs to the bath while I make you something to eat." But while I processed this ridiculous thought I noticed a flash of steel in the bony fingers of the latest arrival.
He posed before me like a 19th century fairground boxer, his arms raised high, flashing around my face whatever metallic object it was that he had.
Of course, I stepped to the side. And as soon as I moved the other three boys pounced on the cash point keyboard feverishly trying to extract the cash, a card or something more. And as quick as they arrived they were off.
The last boy stayed behind with his fists raised, swishing his metal object about, a look of terror in his eyes as he growled and grunted like a wild animal. A few more seconds passed and he too was off.
As I wiped the spit from my glasses, two men approached me. One a professorial and elderly South Asian man, well dressed in a cardigan and overcoat, wire rimmed glasses and neatly parted greased-down hair. He was accompanied by a young man in his early20s, equally well turned out in a smart anorak and backpack.
The older one asked me what had happened, and I began to explain. He cut me off half way through my account claiming he could not understand. So I began again, whereupon the younger man asked me how much the urchins had stolen. "Three hundred euros," I told him. "Merci beaucoup," he replied, and then they too were gone.
These were clearly the supervisor and accountant of this merry band of thieves, firstly making sure the workers made their getaway before I phoned the police and secondly checking how much money they had stolen to ensure every penny was recovered. Quite an enterprise.
Mine was by no means an isolated incident. A Parisian police officer told me dozens of tourists report similar thefts every day and many far more audacious.
"When we had the football riots in early May these street children surrounded tourist buses on the Champs-Elysees, opened the trunks and took out all the luggage, passed it along a human chain to waiting cars on the other side of the riot and made off with it. We could do nothing," she said.
The Louvre museum was closed for a day the week before I arrived as the staff went on strike saying they could no longer cope with the increasing number of street children pickpockets and thieves who plague the place every day.
China only last week warned its wealthy tourists, who visit Paris with wads of cash on the first stop of a traditional world tour, to take precautions in the French capital as robberies and thefts were up as much as 50 per cent year-on-year.
Street crime is threatening to derail the tourism industry in Paris, as it is in cities across the blighted euro zone.
If European governments don't ditch austerity and begin a serious investment programme, and soon, the only tours you'll be able to take in Paris will be like mine - a Victor Hugo reality trip where the souvenirs are truly miserable.
 
jdoran@thenational.ae

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