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ALLEN: Chivalry lives in Paris

Pickpockets and police collide on the Metro

- The Washington Times - Monday, October 24, 2011

Although my wife, Pat, and I have visited Paris dozens of times, we decided to re-create our initial experience of just over half a century ago in fall 1958 after disembarking the Queen Mary at Le Havre and taking the boat train to Paris. At that time, I was on the way to postgraduate studies in Germany, she was seven months expectant with the first of our seven children. Then, we stayed in an inexpensive hotel; this time, after surveying the price of hotel rooms, we rented a small, well-equipped and comfortable apartment at Villa Dancourt in Montmartre. We resolved to go everywhere by Metro, and bought five-day Paris Metro and museum passes.

On a brilliant, sunny October Sunday afternoon in Paris, a shopping trip to La Vallee de Village mall near Disneyland and a Metro ride back to the apartment just below Sacre Coeur were the essential ingredients in making the Paris police our new best friends.

On the stop before ours, a young woman with a tiny infant boarded and was being jostled in the crowded car. I rose to offer her my seat, she accepted, and I found myself in a tight sandwich between several very large male passengers, alternately jostling and pushing against me as the train rocked.

Moments later we pulled into the Anvers station, slowed to a stop, the doors opened and passengers surged out in Parisian fashion, many others waiting to board. As we prepared to alight, I froze: A very large man hoisted the big fellow who had been pushing frontally against me and slammed him to the concrete floor. Another tall, muscular man kickboxed the second large fellow who was bumping me from the side with a lightning foot to the head, groin and legs, and down went No. 2. Thinking we might be in the middle of a melee or a gang war, I pulled my wife to the right end of the platform, where there was no exit. We watched with fascination as the punches flew, pistols were drawn, boarding and alighting passengers frozen in place, the train not moving.

After three minutes or so, the crowds moved, the train doors closed and it pulled out, slowly. We made our way, gingerly, toward the exit, meaning we'd pass within two feet of the prostrate, manacled big fellows and the tracks, and proceeded to the stairs. On the third step we were suddenly flanked by an attractive young blond with a ponytail, dressed casually in a tank top and blue jeans, quickly joined by the large muscular fellow who had toppled the first pusher guy.

She queried us - had we "lost" any money on the Metro? I felt my wallet, intact in my back pocket, and proceeded to say "non," but then felt in my left front pocket and discovered that my money clip was missing. "Attendez," I said, "Yes, we are missing money!" The jostling from several directions had distracted me, and a deft hand in the left pocket yielded the thieves' temporary prize. In the clip I had some $700 in dollars, euros and British pounds. She asked for identification and I produced my Colorado driver's license. Ponytail said, "these are professional pickpockets and our team has observed their maneuver against you." Both showed their badges and pistols, asked us to wait on the steps.

Moments later, she appeared again with her large, amiable companion and said, "we have your money and we will return it to you," asking us to go with them to the police station to sign and file a formal report. We didn't hesitate in agreeing to go along.

As it turned out, they were two of a five-member police team on duty to combat the citywide epidemic of pickpocketing. Miss Ponytail is Officer Melanie Desfossez, (basketball star at the University of Lille) and her muscular fellow officer, Chief Elioth Kouevi. Her other colleagues on the same car included Chief Kamel Benamara (the scary big kickboxer) Ismaila Karre and Vicent Phillippe - all very fit and impressive members of Le Brigade des Reseaux Ferres, the railway division police.

Then two more Metro rides with Melanie and Elioth to the Gare Saint Lazare, by coincidence the point of our first arrival in Paris in fall 1958. There we met with a lovely woman inspector, Vanessa Maligne who took the statement. We observed another squad of police herding a group of young girls, all 16 and under and one very pregnant, into the station. More pickpockets, we were told, immigrant Romanians and operating as a team, just as our large "pushers," brothers with criminal records, were.

The report signed and filed, our money (and my driver's license) returned, handshakes and hugs all around, two of the officers took us back to Montmartre and our wonderful little apartment.

As we reflected on these many years and numerous visits to all parts of France, it occurred to us that we have found the French gendarmerie to be friendly and helpful. Always cautious as we travel abroad, we could not have imagined that our decision to revisit Paris on a shoestring as we did five decades ago would have provided an unexpected adventure like this.

We'll frame the pictures of our heroes, along with a copy of the complaint. Our advice to travelers: Have zippers or strong Velcro on your Metro pants, and stay alert.

Vive la Police de Paris!

Richard V. Allen, a fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, was Ronald Reagan's first national security adviser.

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