Europe, Headlines, Human Rights, Migration & Refugees

FRANCE: Under the Eiffel Tower, a Desperate Game Plays Out

PARIS, Apr 13 2009 (IPS) - It’s a common sight at France’s most famed monument: the police chasing groups of young African and Indian men while tourists stare open-mouthed.

The young men are vendors selling souvenirs around the Eiffel Tower, and they can often be seen sprinting across lines of traffic, holding on to their black plastic bags of goods, with the police in hot pursuit.

As the tourist season heats up, with thousands visiting the so-called City of Lights, the vendors can be seen all over town, at Notre Dame cathedral, at the Louvre art museum, but mainly at the Eiffel Tower.

On a recent sunny day, as numerous tourists snapped photographs and queued to ascend the tower, some 50 young men mingled with the crowds, offering miniature replicas of the tower for sale. Four small gold-coloured souvenirs could be bought for two euros or, with a little bargaining, at half that price.

As money changed hands, the vendors looked around nervously for the police, who have a post at the tower. Soon, the sellers were once again in full flight.

“They chase us because what we’re doing is forbidden,” said Babacar, a neatly dressed young man who said he was from Senegal, like many of the other vendors. “But we offer the souvenirs at a cheaper price than the shops.”

Jean-Pierre Alaux, research director with the Group for Information and Support to Immigrants (GISTI) told IPS that street vendors generally fall into three categories: those with legal documents who obtain a licence to sell in a public place, those without documents who cannot obtain a licence, and those who can legally sell but choose not to obtain a licence to avoid paying tax.

The vendors who flee from the police include undocumented migrants, or “sans papiers”, as they’re called here. They come mainly from Africa and India, an informal IPS survey revealed. This was also confirmed by the police.

Alaux said that with the economic crisis, the number of vendors is becoming much higher, a vexing issue for the authorities.

“The government here and in other European countries sees this as a serious issue, but it’s a small problem for them compared with the problems migrants have,” said Alaux.

As the vendors take flight, accidents sometimes happen, both to them and to the pursuing police officers.

Last month a young vendor was seen limping away after jumping over a park wall, and in early April a policeman was seen falling off his bicycle as he and a colleague chased three vendors through the Champs de Mars, the dusty park around the Eiffel Tower.

The police, as well as the migrants, are caught up in President Nicolas Sarkozy’s policy of dealing harshly with “illegal immigrants”, according to some non-governmental organisations.

In 2007, after Sarkozy came to power, his newly created immigration ministry announced that it had set a target of 25,000 undocumented migrants that the police had to find and deport annually.

Since then, migrants have been subjected to raids and checks by the authorities, with some tragic results. In 2007, a Chinese immigrant jumped to her death from the window of her apartment in central Paris as she tried to escape the police.

A year ago, a 29-year-old undocumented Malian immigrant Baba Traoré died of a heart attack after jumping into the Marne river in an attempt to escape police. He had arrived in France four years earlier to give a kidney to his sister, the wife of a Frenchman, but his residence permit had expired and renewal had not been granted, according to official reports.

Other cases have involved children being hurt, and at least one immigrant committing suicide after being denied asylum and facing deportation back to a country where he might have been tortured.

The central police commission in the 7th arrondissement of Paris, where the Eiffel Tower is located, say vendors are chased away not because they are migrants but because they have no permit to sell at this “protected site” and because they pay no tax.

A police officer, who asked not to be named, said that if the vendors are found to be without legal documents they are taken to a special court. He said the number of ‘sans papiers’ arrested range from 20 a month to 200, depending on the time of year. During the high tourist season, more potential customers are available, and the vendors come out in force.

The police say it is not for them to decide what to do with undocumented migrants, and that they are just doing their job chasing people who break the law.

Sarkozy supporters approve of the official measures, but many think the authorities are going too far.

“At least the souvenir sellers are working,” says Laurent, a cab driver who works around the Eiffel Tower. “I prefer a guy who does that, even if he’s not paying taxes, to someone who grabs an old lady’s handbag.”

He added, “I feel lucky enough to be in my country. But just imagine being far away from your home and having the police chase you every day. I don’t envy them at all.”

Some tourists say they are bothered by the vendors, with one stating that it was “difficult to enjoy the tower” while being constantly asked to buy trinkets.

Other visitors, however, have an affable way of dealing with the peddlers. Approached by a young Indian man touting his wares, a British tourist was heard saying, “Sorry, I already have 20 of these souvenirs.”

The vendor replied, “Why not go for 30?”

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