Drama on Autobus 31

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There is a lot of concern now in France about l’insécurité.   I remember when I moved to Paris in 1991, I never heard of anyone being attacked. I will admit that there always has been, and still is, a lot of thievery here–it’s better to have a purse with flaps and to keep track of your luggage and packages placed on the ground. In fact, I never leave my purse on the ground anymore after having one stolen that way in 1991. But violence was never an issue. It is now. I’m hearing more and more about friends of friends in Paris not only being ripped off, but attacked at the same time. When you think of the history of the city, this pales in comparison. But it seems to me there are some big problems coming down the road. They’re coming from the banlieus where the disaffected kids of immigrants live in housing projects called HLM’s in a kind of nightmare setting. I’ve seen some of them, and they are just as bad as described. I’ve also heard stories about what it’s like to live in those neighborhoods and suffer the type of violence and aggression most Americans associate with the inner city. On the one hand, these kids were raised in France; they know that they have rights, but are discriminated against in a really blatant way. You’d be mad too. On the other hand, they also think it less and less of a big deal to resort to violence.   The Leftist government tended to support whoever was oppressed, whether or not they were violent and posed a threat to everyone else, and did not really support the police. Jacques Chiraq and the new government were recently elected for these very reasons. They should be making some changes such as increased penalties for young offenders, which were minimal to say the least. However, if they don’t work to end the discrimination against and the isolation of these outlying communities, the problem will only get worse. “A voir,” as they say. But sometimes Paris is still Paris and small miracles take place when you least expect them. Several months ago I was visiting a friend who lives near the Champs Elysées in a posh neighborhood, to say the least. One way for me to return home is to take Autobus 31, which starts near the Champs and then makes its way east across the northern neighborhoods of Paris which are far from posh–like mine. Although my quartier may not be lovely, it’s lively! In fact, I often return home alone quite late at night, and it’s fine. And I feel safer there after dark than I did in Santa Monica, California, where I lived just before I moved to Paris. It’s ironic to think of Santa Monica, so upper middle class, feeling more dangerous than the poor Arab, African, Chinese and Sri Lankan (all combined) neighborhood were I live now. That evening I boarded Autobus 31 on Avenue de Friedland near Etoile. The 31 is a sort of double bus–2 busses connected in the middle by an accordion-like seal that allows it to turn corners, so it’s quite long. I seated myself in the back and settled myself in for the uneventful ride home. Several stops later I noticed a short, middleaged, “white” Frenchman, gripping the support pole that runs from the floor to the ceiling of the bus, as if his life depended on it.  From the vacant expression in his eyes and the blank expression on his face, I concluded that he was just a bit mentally handicapped. I watched, fascinated, as he gripped the pole, standing rigidly in the middle of the aisle so that each passenger had to ask him to step aside whenever they went from the door of the bus to take their seat in the rear, or vice versa.   By the middle of the route, the bus was quite full, mostly with people from the non-posh neighborhoods we were passing through. Suddenly, a young North African man in the front of the bus, kind of scraggly looking, started shouting at the top of his lungs as he lurched towards the back of the bus. What he was shouting was that the man clutching the pole was a bastard, how dare he block the aisle like that and that he would beat him to a pulp right there and then–again. I think the little gray-haired, (and at this point) wild-eyed man almost stopped breathing he was so scared–you could feel his fear. (I was sitting right next to him–he was really was really gripping the bus pole then.) As the young North African kept advancing, shouting and gesticulating towards the back of the bus, the unexpected happened. As I said, we had picked up a lot of passengers from the poor neighborhoods we had passed through. Many of these passengers were African. Well–they went into action. I don’t think they knew each other, but they were so coordinated it seemed as if they did. Two or three guys, about twice as big as the potential attacker, approached him and talked to him as they politely, but firmly, pushed him towards the middle of the bus. Then, somehow, they forced him off the bus at the next stop! Several others gently pushed the handicapped man further towards the rear of the bus, got him seated and then several women sat next to him, talking to him quietly and calmed him down. Voilà. Welcome to Paris. Thus was violence averted.   The most irritating thing was that I was so drawn into this drame, I missed my stop and had to backtrack a good ways to get home! But, OK, it was worth it and a small price to pay to see strangers group together in order to protect the weak and prevent violence. And this is not the first time I’ve seen it happen in Paris. In the end, I suppose we were all lucky that the young North African man was not carrying a gun. — Jeanne Feldman is an intercultural specialist working with English speaking expatriates to help them integrate into french life, both professionally and personally. In addition she works with French executives who need to communicate internationally. Jeanne has also written a shopping guide, Best Buys and Bargains in Paris
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