There has been a massive upsurge in street crime against unsuspecting tourists in Paris

Is Paris slowly shedding its title of the City of Romance to become the theft and pickpocketing capital of Europe where tourists are regularly fleeced of their belongings in myriad ingenious ways?

This past year, amid rising unemployment and a sluggish economy, there has been a massive upsurge in street crime against unsuspecting tourists, and the authorities are trying to battle this phenomenon by deploying policemen in plainclothes, making public announcements in several languages and handing out warning leaflets to tourists.

The fallout of this increase in crime is that tourists, especially from China, India, Brazil and other emerging nations who have money to spend, are beginning to avoid the city altogether.

That criminality directed at tourists is serious is evident from the fact that personnel at the Louvre went on strike in April to protest against “gangs of minors” entering the museum without paying and emptying the pockets of visitors. France gives youngsters free museum passes in an attempt to inculcate a love for culture in them.

The Chinese are the real big spenders, and he present criminal trend worries France’s luxury goods industry. On an average, a Chinese tourist spends an estimated €1470 each time he visits a luxury goods store. The Colbert Committee (Comité Colbert), the federation of 75 leading luxury goods manufacturers, has expressed its disquiet at this increase in crime.

“Paris is in the process of acquiring a reputation for absolute insecurity,” Elisabeth Ponsolle des Portes, a member of the Colbert Committee, told journalists on May 24. “We must ensure that the tourism sector which creates jobs is protected,” she said. The committee has taken up the matter with the Finance and Industry Ministry, Lucie Cazassus, public relations officer of the Colbert Committee, told The Hindu in an email.

The Paris police reacted sharply to these remarks, saying: “Every day, over 200 police officers are deployed in the capital and on its transport networks to fight such delinquency.”

In an exclusive interview to The Hindu, Xavier Castaing, head of Communications in the cabinet of the Prefect of Paris, said: “At a recent high-level meeting, we adopted 26 measures to prevent crimes targeting tourists. Earlier, policemen could not be posted on the premises of museums etc. We now have permission for policemen to be at tourist attractions, and the results are excellent. Within the Louvre, for instance, the number of complaints has come down from 120 a month to about 30, a drop of 75 per cent. We have also established good partnerships with embassies and tourist offices of different countries and improved the ways in which victims are welcomed in police stations. We are also aiming to inform the public better by making multi-lingual announcements.”

Chinese tourists are among the favourite targets of thieves and pickpockets who almost always operate in gangs. Recently, an entire Chinese tour group of 23 persons was physically attacked and their passports and cash were stolen. The Chinese tourism association has made a formal complaint, calling on French authorities to offer “effective protection” to Chinese citizens.

Indians have not been spared, either. Between May 6 and June 26, the Indian embassy in Paris registered 74 complaints from Indian tourists robbed of passports and valuables — a quantum jump when compared with the fact that in the whole of 2012, there was a total of only 238 such cases reported.

“In all, it took less than a minute. My wife placed her bag on the floor in Cafe Rivoli. A second later, when she turned around, it was gone,” Colonel Sunil Kohli, who was holidaying in France with his wife, told The Hindu. “The police were not helpful. It took us an hour-and-a-half to get our complaint registered, and no one spoke a word of English even in a highly touristic zone like Rue de Rivoli. But the Indian Embassy was extremely helpful. It was a Saturday, and the gentleman came in his own car to issue us fresh passports. Kudos to them,” Colonel Kohli said.

The Kohlis are not the only Indians to tell such stories of woe. Professor A.K. Darpe, who is on the faculty of the Indian Institute of Technology in New Delhi, his wife and two children were also robbed of their passports and other valuables in a metro station. “The person whose flat we had rented came to the police station with us to help us translate. My husband received a hard push in the metro, and the bag that was hanging around his neck had vanished. I think they just cut the strap. The police were extremely rude. They just did not care. I have to thank a certain Mr. S.K. Goel of the Indian Embassy who went out of his way to help us. He has all my blessings,” Mrs. Darpe told this correspondent.

The Indian Embassy has put out a travel warning on its website but refused permission for this correspondent to quote embassy officials. “Indian tourists visiting Paris are advised not to carry too many valuables, cash and credit cards while travelling by public transport, including metros,” the advisory says. The warning tells tourists to take adequate precautions with valuables, including passports in hotels, adding that bags tend to disappear from hotel lobbies even if left unattended for a few seconds. Travellers are also advised to keep photocopies of passports separately.

This advisory hardly gives the real picture of the situation, which is extremely worrisome. Thieves, officials told this correspondent, use credit cards within minutes of having stolen them. People have been robbed even on the second stage of the Eiffel Tower. An Indian couple were robbed in the Gare de Lyon station en route to their honeymoon destination in the south of France. People have had their suitcases snatched while on the RER fast train network on the way to the airport to catch their flights home.

“Thieves know their suitcases will be full of gifts and shopping. Indians and Chinese are shopping-mad and carry lots of cash and jewellery,” an official told The Hindu.

The thieves are generally identified as belonging to the following categories: Romanian and other East Europeans, Black Africans, North African Arabs and Roma gypsies, particularly minor children who encircle tourists and attack them as a group.

“The problem with the Roma is that they are often minors aged 13-15. They cannot be put in detention. Even if caught, they are produced before a magistrate and let off. These are extremely well-trained thieves and they act together,” the official said.

Mr. Castaing said the Roma children posed a particularly delicate problem. “These children are exploited by those who control them. We have therefore established strong working relationships with the Romanian police, and in several cases, we have been able to trace the leads back to those who give the orders and exploit the children. We often have Romanian police officers visit us here and we conduct joint operations with them. But… the problem is not just criminal. It is social, educational and cultural as well,” Mr. Castaing said.

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