Sue and I visited Paris recently and had a wonderful time (see a Mar 2011 blog post about my visit to the Musée Carnavalet.).

One thing that we found disconcerting was the prevalence of scam artists around the city. Unfortunately, although we took lots of pictures of the city, we failed to take any of these people.

The door blocking musicians

Our first experience with a scam artist was riding the train from the airport to the city center. At a stop after the airport, a young man, who from his complexion I assume to be North African, stepped on the train with a portable amplifier/synthesizer. He blocked the exit door of the train and began singing. When the train pulled to the next stop, he stopped singing and held a tip cup as people moved on or off the train. When the train started moving again, he started singing again. We saw musicians nearly every day while riding the Metro. Unlike the U.S. the musicians were always on the trains, never in the stations. Also, unlike the street musicians I see in the U.S., these people were uniformly untalented.

The school for the deaf

Our second experience occurred a few minutes later as we exited the airport train at Gare du Nord. It is a beautiful building. In front of the station are throngs of teenage girls, all of them deaf (or so they mime), and all of them with long dark hair and brown eyes. I presume they are also North African. They each have a clipboard with note, in English, asking for a donation for their school. They are very persistent, like flies at a picnic. We saw these deaf girls outside all the Metro stations nearest tourist sites and near the Eiffel Tower.

The found ring

Apparently, lots of men drop their gold wedding bands on the ground near museums in Paris. Luckily, there is always a nice gentleman who speaks broken English who will pick it up and ask you if it is yours. When you say “no”, he will ask if you want to buy it and then point to the 14K mark inside the band. Too bad the ring is made of brass. A version of this scam involving a woman is described here.

The woven bracelet

After walking past the hoard of deaf girls at the upper station for the Montmartre funicular , I started walking down the steps. On the way down, I encountered a group of young men who surround me. They are all black, possibly immigrants from West Africa. One of them places a string loop around my wrist and begins weaving it. I get bored with his spiel and move on. The weaver yells down the hill and a second group of young men surround me again and repeat the process. I’m intrigued, but am in a hurry and break away from them. Naturally, they are disappointed that I didn’t stick around to buy a souvenir of my visit to the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur.

Trinket dealers

As you walk toward the Eiffel Tower, there are many people selling souvenirs and toys. There are some selling identical Eiffel Tower key chains (always 12 for 5 Euros) and Eiffel Tower replicas (in several sizes up to a foot tall). Others sell identical wind-up fuzzy dogs. And a final group sells wooden trains with carved letters that you can use to spell your name, or “P-A-R-I-S” or “E-I-F-F-E-L T-O-W-E-R.” Nearly all of the vendors were young men and appeared to be either black or North African.

What’s going on?

I thought it was odd that so many scam artists would use identical techniques. Here are a few ideas that popped into my head.

  1. These people are all copying each other because these particular scams have proven to be the money makers. You wouldn’t want to copy a scam that is inefficient.
  2. The prevalence of North African and West African immigrants in these scams indicates how hard it is for these people to find regular employment in the French economy. Discrimination forces immigrants and their descendants to live in the margins of society.
  3. The tolerance of the French police to these scammers, who prey on tourists and ply their trade in busy public places in broad daylight, indicates a tacit admission by the government that there are no other jobs for these people and to restrict their activities could lead to violent social unrest. Recall the riots in Clichy-sous-Bois and other banlieues in 2005.
  4. Some scams, like the musicians are probably independently operated. But others, like the sales of identical toys, and the soliciting for the deaf girl school, indicate that someone may be controlling access to the goods, the forms, and maybe even the prime street locations. These may be pyramid schemes in which the vendors are paying a cut to someone above. These street scam artists may be victimizing tourists. But they may be victims themselves.
  5. The girls with the clipboards ask you to complete the “donation” form because this is an easy way for the scam operator to ensure each girl reaches her quota and ensure she isn’t stealing any of the funds.