By RICHARD CARREÑO
[WC News Service]
While France remains on high-alert, following recent terrorist attacks, and its armed forces and national and local police deployed to block still more murder and mayhem (a potential bombing was thwarted just this past Sunday at Nôtre Dame), another zealous security force is working diligently underground here to deter another fierce threat -- this from unsuspecting tourists.
In fact, these agents are nothing more than a band of weasels employed by Paris's equally conniving subway system, the Métropolitan, or Métro, to ostensibly enforce a wide range of rules of regulations to maintain underground safety and order. Not a word of truth to it! The Métro police have, in fact, have a singled out docile -- often non-French speaking -- visitors as their prime target. The offense? Not retaining the paper ticket used at turnstiles to enter the subway network. The punishment? Strict fines.
I know. I was nailed this week. This, after eighteen months of residence in Paris (in the 60s) and more than forty visits in subsequent years. And I speak (and read) French.
Shame on me.
But more shame can be bestowed on a venerable transportation system whose record of efficiency, safety, and cleanliness is among the most envied in the world.
I suppose I knew. At least at some point. The guidebooks warn about the need for ticket retention. Every Parisian is aware of the rule. And yes, a warning is posted at every station ticket counter. In French. In fine print. Fines vary -- but run up to €100 if police get involved and rule against you. (Which they always do, of course).
Here's the rub. Ticket counters are largely unused since most riders have fully-loaded tap cards.
As for tickets, most are purchased from vending machines without any warning signage. And now, more pertinent than ever, hardly no one uses paper tickets other than tourists, visiting businessmen, and the poor.
This because the Métro is transitioning to the now widely-adopted tap card system, and paper tickets are on the way out. Only a minority of turnstiles, in fact, accept them. All the more reason, I reckon, that the subway police are now more zealous than ever. A easy source of revenue is also about to bite the dust.
No doubt, the Métro has a scofflaw problem. During my recent visit here, I saw a number of violators jumping over the turnstiles. The ticket window guys were powerless to stop them -- just shouting obscenities after them. The Métro enforcers? Nowhere to be found, naturally.
Let's be precise: Métro officials know these following facts. Scofflaws are usually male and young. Not a 70-year-old from Philadelphia with a bank account large enough to pay the paltry fare. (€14.50 for ten tickets). And also a Philadelphian, I might add, with an artificial knee.
This last point is important. There only two ways to enter the system. Paying or jumping.
So when I was caught at the Charles de Gaulle/L'Étoile stop by the subway goons (all ferocious-looking women, by the way), I was not only being accused of a ticket offense, but, by extension, of jumping the turnstile. Yeah, sure.
Of course, this logic holds no sway in any French rational mind.
So I attempted to change the course of conversation when the goons surrounded me. Yes, they surrounded me. To prevent my escape, I suppose.
They wanted €50, or $56. A credit card is just fine, thanks. All things considered, not a bad price for a fine, or even a stick-up. A lot less than a parking ticket in Philly.
Still, I asked for compassion. I asked for goodwill. I asked to see a consular official from the American Embassy. (Just joking).
I stood my ground. I tried to mix it up. I asked to see to a real flic (cop). I immediately realized this was not a good idea. I remembered by last encounter with French police -- after my rental car was broken into several years ago. That event could have been made into an episode of the Pink Panther. And, yes, I was warned about the €100 police intervention clause.
Finally, a head goon showed up, waving a well-worn photocopy of the fine print. But, but, I sputtered. My final salvo: "I have other tickets.'
I realised I was wearing them down.
In that case, the fine will be €33, $37, I was told.
Again, not bad for a scam. Even a robbery. I ponied up.
'Wait! What happens if I get stopped again?' I asked.
Oh, they shrugged, giving me a new, stamped ticket for through travel. That was worth €1.40.
So, €33 minus €1.40 came to €31.60, $35.
I went home by Uber.