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Tinderbox

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When Things Go Wrong

by Ric Erickson

Paris:– Wednesday, 28. March:– The folks appear to be restless. Everybody was minding their own business Tuesday afternoon at the Gare du Nord when a prospective passenger decided to ride for free. It took until just after midnight before the métro, RER and SNCF train station returned to a state, as much as it ever does, of tranquility.

It was at the beginning of the massive rush hour, about 4:30, that a man described variously as a teenager, or slightly older, jumped a ticket barrier and landed in the hands of a couple of RATP controllers. Some witnesses said the affair immediately heated up and spiraled out of control when the freerider might have head–butted one of the controllers.

They began to drag off the miscreant while calling for police reinforcements. This happened in the central exchange area between the RER lines B and D and métro lines 4 and 5, within sight of hundreds of passengers on several levels. A group of youths decided to mix in.

Ten minutes after the begin of the incident the ticketless rider was taken to the police office in the station. A group of youths, objecting to the violence of the arrest, surrounded the police office. Some offered to pay the fine. The RATP agents instead called for reinforcements, to disperse the crowd.

photo, montmartre vineyard, sacre coeurThe vinyard, the Musée Montmartre and the rest.

With the massive arrival of the police in stormtrooper gear, the riot began. While the police lobbed canisters of teargas the youths lobbed back everything loose that came to hand – pens, cigarette packages, heavy flower pots full of dirt and flowers. Meanwhile more rush hour passengers arrived in the middle of this subterranean mêlée.

By five o'clock with the station in full rush hour a rumor of muscular arrests was circulating. Somebody mentioned a broken arm. A pregnant woman was thrown down and gassed. Transit security agents and CRS riot police arrived. Tension mounted as a hundred troublemakers faced the law and order forces. Insults and projectiles flew back and forth. The police charged. The youths charged. Passengers scrambled to avoid the battle.

Station loudspeakers announced that métro lines 4 and 5 were closed at Gare du Nord. Exits and entries were opened and closed. The whole station was a street battle scene. Passengers didn't know where to turn.

By six the police were blocking the entries to the areas of conflict but it was possible to get around their barriers. Garbage receptacles were torn out and turned into missiles. The police had difficulty maintaining their own security and youths charged the center of the CRS line, encouraged by some passengers observing from higher levels. Anti– Sarkozy slogans were heard.

Girls mixed in with the youths. Iron security bars were ripped out and thrown at the police, as well as used as bats for smashing kiosk windows. A photo automat booth was knocked down. Masked youths attempted to start a fire. Tear gas flew all over. A pregnant police officer was violently pushed. Rumors swirled like roulette balls. Police efforts to clear the métro entries were in vain for a hour.

photo, the way to the top Sunday climbers seek the heights.

By 7:30, three hours after the begin of the riot, a fragile calm returned, with the RATP reopening métro lines 4 and 5. But at 9:30 youths were still dropping pots full of plants on police from higher levels. Heavily laden firemen put out garbage can fires. The police worried about innocent passengers being pushed onto the RER tracks, where the line B continued to operate, running without stopping at Gare du Nord.

Thirteen suspects were detained by the police, including the original barrier jumper, who was placed in garde à vue in the commissariat of the 10th arrondissement. It took the CRS until after midnight to clear out the last of the troublemakers. Outside on the street, they set some construction barriers on fire. There was next to nothing reported about possible injuries.

By purest chance this incident came at the exact moment when the civilian security debate was beginning to become an element of the current presidential election campaign.

Update:– The incident created a massive media–politico uproar – there are 12 presidential candidates – and reminded many here of the suburban mutinies of late 2005.

The barrier–jumper, Angelo, turned out not to be a teenager or a youth, being 32. He turned out not to be illegal – he was expecting to be given his residence papers this week. He did have a bit of a history with justice, but the jail sentence he received was probably related to the – disputed – agression towards the controllers. Everybody else did the rioting, and those arrested for it were found guilty and sentenced last week.

photo, montmartre, sacre coeur, tourists Everybody comes to see... Montmartre.

It seemed like an awful big deal about an unpaid local transit ticket. A dozen arrested, a quarter–million commuters hung up, hundreds of police called, the fire department, emergency health services, the extensive material damage, jails, prosecutors and courts, lawyers, social aides, and then the politicians. All, for maybe, 1.50€? It must be France.

Gare du Nord with its line B of the RER, is the first stop in Paris for passengers arriving from the airport Charles–de–Gaulle at Roissy. They can continue on to Châtelet or to Saint–Michel, or switch to the métro line 4 at all three stations. Many voyagers choose instead to use the Air France buses, or private van operators, and pay a bit more for the convenience.

A bientôt à Paris
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contents to: Ric Erickson, Editor.
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