Paying the Piper in Paris


I paid my first fine in France the other day.

Apparently, as in an old war movie, I had been walking around without my papers.

Specifically, I had only half of my monthly métro pass, known as a Carte Navigo. I was missing the photo part. Yes – you need a photo to travel on a monthly pass on the subway here.

This control at the exit was part of a heightened security operation in Paris over the last few months, during the government’s current state of emergency. Apparently terrorists might sneak into the subway system.

As I was leaving the Malesherbes station, on the line 3 métro, I was stopped by staff from the RATP, the local transportation authority, who asked to see either the ticket for my ride or my monthly pass. I showed my pass, but it wasn’t complete, apparently.

“Where’s the other part?” the security officer asked me.

“Which other part?”

“With your photo.”

“It’s at home,” I said. “It’s too big to stick in the wallet.”

“That won’t do. You need a photo. That’ll be 50 euros,” he said.

“I have a photo ID,” I said, showing him my New York State driver’s license, which has worked before (I don’t walk around with my passport).

“Not that,” he said. “You need the photo that comes on the card.”

“I have that. But not with me. I didn’t know that was the rule. I paid for the card, but the other half is at home.”

“You need the photo card.” He was intractable.

The yearly Navigo cards are all-in-one – photo on one side, computer chip on the other. The monthly cards, for those like me who are here for only a part of the year yet who prefer to use a monthly pass, come in two parts. One with the chip. The other with the all-necessary photo, which you must have on you at all times on the métro, as in a police state.

“That’ll be 50 euros,” he said again.

“Fifty? But I’m not from here,” I said. “I really didn’t know about traveling with the photo part.”

“Thirty-three euros then,” he said. Apparently he could determine the size of the fine according to his mood. “We take cash or checks or you can use a debit card.”

In the meantime, a French businessman of about 60 was protesting for his part what he called an “arnaque,” or swindle, on the part of the transportation authority. He was caught empty-handed, with no photo, like me, but he demanded, in an increasingly strident and furious tone, “What has this country come to? I can’t travel on the métro in peace? This is unbelievable! It’s a crime!”

My thoughts exactly. But I took out my card to pay regardless. I was in no position to argue. Even if the official lopped had 17 euros off what I needed to hand over. I wasn’t going to risk being hauled away as a threat to public safety.

“There’s no need to shout, sir,” remarked another transportation official, who was running my debit card through her portable payment machine.

The man continued regardless. “This isn’t the France I know! This isn’t the country I served!”

“Sir,” said the unyielding official, “please don’t shout.” She handed me my receipt – for what use, I have no idea. Part of the bureaucratic bargain: you pay a fine for something ridiculous and you get your record of payment.

“I will not stop shouting,” the man shouted.

“Sir, your shouting serves no purpose.” As in, shut up and pay and we can go and harass passengers at another station.

I had already paid €70 for my card, and then had to cough up an additional €33 for not having my papers in order, according to the transportation authority. I thought, in the way of the foreigner I continue to be, that this could never happen with a New York City Metrocard, where you can travel using the monthly or weekly or daily pass without needing a photo identification at the same time. (I thought also that despite problems with the New York Subway system, at least its monthly card system makes more sense than the French one. For one thing, the month begins the day you use card, not the first day of the month, as here. You should see the lines at the Paris metro on the 31st or the 1st.)

I mentioned this incident to my friend Raoul as we walked toward the Musée Marmottan in the 16th. I had not been stopped on leaving the station at Porte Dauphine, but I was still a bit puzzled about what had happened.

“Well,” Raoul said, “having the photo means that someone else can’t use your card.”

“I don’t care if someone else uses my card if I’m not using it,” I said.

“Well the transportation authority does,” he said, as if that explained everything. In a way, it did. Governments work that way.

France is, of course, a country defined almost as much by its entrenched bureaucracy as by its deep history and culture. And the state really does demand that you have photos on quite a few documents that elsewhere wouldn’t require a mug shot. Perhaps that’s why instant-photo booths have sprung up in so many metro stations – so people can hop in to get the necessary image taken to satisfy the authorities that they are who they are, or at least that there’s a photo of some sort on the appropriate document. Regardless of whether it resembles you or not.

I once gave my gym membership card to my friend Bob for him to use when I wasn’t in town, and he said, on seeing my image on it, “This could be anybody.”

He was right.

But it was important to have a photo there anyway. Even if the image didn’t particularly look like me. Even though the woman who swipes the card at the gym entrance never looks at the photo. The point is that the card have a photo – any photo. Certain rules just cannot be broken.

I now carry the full Carte Navigo with me – even though it, too, has a blurry photo that I’d had taken at one of those dinky metro-station picture booths. But it’s there. Just in case I’m stopped again idly leaving the metro like a potential miscreant. The point is, if there’s some sort of photo where it’s supposed to be, then everything is fine. And more important, if you’ve got your indiscernible image of yourself, or even of someone else, on your public transportation card, then the people of Paris are safe.

One thought on “Paying the Piper in Paris

  1. I can make a general interpretation . First I don’t think the uniformed man can fix the fine according to his mood only . I never had a subway pass in Paris but for instance on overspeed tickets two or three prices are written : if you pay before a month you only pay around 2 thirds of the full fine . I guess some particular cases are forecasted in the metro regulation . The personal mood factor can only operate about which case the uniform will accept to consider .
    Now I agree with the old man, France is getting further and further from the country I felt at ease in . And this new state of emergency makes the tide speed up towards the ugly direction .
    A thing I always appreciated here ( and I only discovered it when confronted to the cops in other countries ) is there always used to be leeway for personal interaction – if you could behave in a right way you could avoid the whole harshness of the law . This is very important for me – and for most Frenchmen . I remember my feeling of desolation and incredulity when I had minor troubles with the cops in Britain, Germany or Scandinavia, the impression of dealing with robots managed by an almighty and deadly cold circle of power . Like the initial scene of arrest in the fabulous movie “Brazil” … To be complete I must say I “enjoyed” some encounters with the cops in Morocco, Italy or even in the Navajo reservation .
    But alas this kind of “old people” understanding of a necessary balance between a necessary list of rules and a necessary purely human ( man to man) dimension is vanishing from my once beloved France .


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s