Saturday, December 24, 2011

Crime and Justice in Provence

Well, it's everywhere. Crime, I mean.(You didn't think my rose-coloured glasses were that heavily tinted, did you?)Every time I open the local paper or turn on the news there's another armed robbery reported or another shooting in Marseille. Yesterday a 17-year-old boy was shot dead in Marseille outside an apartment block, La Castellane. The sapeurs-pompiers (fire brigade/paramedics) arrived promptly but couldn't save the boy from the seven rounds fired into his body from a kalashnikov rifle.

Marseille's long had a reputation for violent crime and the latest version of urban warfare in France's second city combines cocaine dealing with kalashnikovs.

A few weeks ago another youngster, Ali Attia, was shot dead in his cousin's restaurant in a café in Saint-Antoine, a quartier in the north of Marseille. His killer strolled in with a kalashnikov and shot him as he sat at the dinner table.

These tit-for-tat killings are referred to in the Provençal press as a war of the clans - gangs and families vying to control cocaine supply in Marseille. But there are also casual killings when young men loaded up with cocaine take offence at a passing glance from another kid in the quartier. Guns are used as casually as fists once were. The ex-wife of a friend of mine was shot in the head some time ago as she walked down a road in Marseille in daylight. Obviously not knowing what had hit her, she was rushed to hospital and luckily survived. What had hit her was of course a stray bullet from a gun being used by a local guy to settle some imbecilic score - drug payment or other.

Since la crise started to bite in Provence as elsewhere in Europe, there seems to have been exponential growth in the business of armed robbery too. In and around Avignon for example, a series of recent armed robberies have targetted businesses like McDonalds and Quick (a drive-through takeaway). Supermarkets like Intermarché have been frequently hit too. The police in Avignon caught six teenage boys within minutes of the Quick robbery. Turning up to the scene of the crime with admirable rapidity, the unit made a tour of the vicinty and found six armed lads in a car counting cash.... Back to crime school, boys - you haven't learnt the basics.

Another criminal gang that needs to go back to crime school tried to blow up a bank in Gardanne in the Bouches-du-Rhone this week. They used explosive to blast the safe that feeds the cash distributer. But they didn't use enough and the safe stayed intact. They did however blow out the windows of an elderly resident's house. And they also apparently managed to get themselves filmed by the CCTV camera, also unaffected by the blast.

Crime isn't always violent, of course. Marseille has just seen the trial of a counterfeiter money-maker, Michel Vialle, who bagged himself a profit of around 150,000 by stealing the special paper used to make money, then forging a bunch of euros and Algerian dinar. (Actually the paper theft was violent. A vehicle carrying the paper was blasted open to carry out the theft.) Vialle - nicknamed le canard - the Duck - I have no idea why - told the police he was pretty astonished at the success of his forged euros. He hadn't expected them to be accepted all over the place, but they were. He was caught after a bloke saw him burning a few counterfeit bills, outside, and later handed burnt fragments to the police. The police went to the site and found a toothpick Vialle had discarded by the notes. It had his DNA on it. It must be the first time in history, surely, that a counterfeiter has been trapped by a toothpick.

Last week I went to see the French film Les Lyonnais, starring the increasingly watchable Gérard Lanvin. Directed by Olivier Marchal, it's a hard-hitting film about gypsy crime families in the 50s and ensuing decades. Based on the real history of Edmond Vidal, nicknamed Momon, it shows the excessive violence of that milieu and that era. It borrows a bit too much use of imagery and episodes from The Godfather, but nevertheless it's a very good film.

Provence also has a very large community of gitanes, officially recast as gens de voyage these days. I don't give two hoots for the politically correct terminology - one of my neighbours out here in the forest is a gitane and the first thing she ever said to me after announcing her name was "Je suis une gitane". The gypsies of Provence hail mostly from Spain originally and still have a strong presence in the Camargue, the marshy wetlands south and west of Arles. But sites, official and otherwise, are dotted all over Provence. I have been told that the prisons here are largely controlled by the gitanes - internally, I mean. I've also been told that some years ago there was a battle in L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue between local gitanes and the maghrebin community. Apparently, the gypsies took offence at something done by young maghrebin guys and turned up at their estate in the evening and started shooting out windows in the tall apartment blocks. I was told that the police were informed but declined to get involved, feeling perhaps that this was just another, if smaller, war of the clans. Maybe it's an apocryphal story. But maybe not.

What is noticeable in Provence is that very often the wheels of justice turn quickly. If a criminal is nabbed quickly, and the evidence is clear and simple, the offender can find himself in court and in jail within days. I recall a case where a young driver was stopped by police for traffic offences and swore at them. He was in court the next morning, convicted and jailed. The police respond quickly to crime - not always but often - and the courts tend to hand out punishments fairly freely for anti-social behaviour.

There's also petty crime all over the place and even that tends to be reported by people and documented by the police even if little can be done to catch offenders. My neighbour came out of his house one morning not long ago to find his car propped on a breeze block. A wheel had been stolen. A few years before, his previous car had been stolen. This is up a track outside a small village. Other neighbours have had petrol stolen out of their cars and tractors. One had a large agricultural trailer nicked. My nearest neighbour called the cops one night when burglars were breaking into her house. The intruders buzzed off. Other near neighbours had a young guy walk into their home and steal cash, a satnav thing and a digital camera. He had the nerve to return a few nights later but this time was scared off.

Last year, a disgruntled neighbour asked me if I'd seen anyone hanging around his land just before Christmas. No, I said. Why? "I came out to pick my olives" he said "and they'd all been stolen. It's completely uncivil." He's right of course. But at least the thieves didn't turn up with kalashnikovs.


  1. Christmas Eve our local Intermaché was patrolled by gendarmes with machine guns. Why? It had been robbed at gun point some months earlier.

  2. Yep. There seems to be an increase is serious crime - particularly armed robbery of businesses - but that's mainly an impression. I haven't researched it. What's going on in Marseille though is clearly out of hand. Kids slaughtering each other - but the drug money they're fighting over is huge.

  3. Hiya! I am curious if you have a lot of subscribers to this blog?