Do I feel safe in Paris?

My sister and I were talking on the phone, about a week ago, when this question came up. Upon her asking, I was slightly stunned, why would I not feel safe? She then proceeded to forward me an email that she’d received from the United States Embassy which, sure enough, showed that the travel advisory for France was raised from level 1 to level 2 telling people to exercise caution due to “terrorism” and “civil unrest.” After reading the full article, I was still shocked. I couldn’t imagine being scared of going to the places I’d frequented for the last three months just because of some travel advisory. In order to talk my sister off the ledge, I explained to her that I don’t feel afraid, regardless of what the U.S. Embassy says.

For the last three months, I have been living in a city that is a hub for Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vest) protests that have been frequently dubbed “violent” because of the actions of certain casseurs (people who break things) in their midsts. The 18th Saturday of the Gilets Jaunes movement was by far the most violent, at least in Paris. They marched from the Arc de Triomphe down the Champs-Elysées, a street that boasts famous luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton and Cartier. The boulevard epitomizes the system which the Gilets Jaunes have felt has suppressed them: capitalism. I walked on that street the very next day and was shocked to find windows completely shattered and the awning of one of the fanciest, most expensive restaurants in Paris, Fouquet’s, victim of a fire started by these casseurs.

At the same time, I’ve had very different experiences with the Gilets Jaunes. I remember one Saturday I was out shopping with some friends and I’d just said goodbye to them to head back home by way of the metro. Just next to the metro entrance, the street was completely packed with a parade of Gilets Jaunes, shouting and singing, but not breaking anything. In order to get to the metro, I had to go through them. Carefully, I joined in with the group and slipped out on the other side of the road unharmed. No one wanted to hurt someone who was passing by because those are not the people that the Gilets Jaunes want to express their frustrations with.

While similar situations have occurred multiple times for me, I know some people who haven’t been as lucky with their Gilets Jaunes experiences. A group of students my age were leaving a store when they found themselves in between the police and the Gilets Jaunes. They got sprayed with tear gas! Unfortunately, there are run-ins like this between police and Gilets Jaunes fairly frequently and I’ve almost had the same thing happen to me.

One day after class, I wanted to go buy a crepe by the Seine because that’s where you can find them fresh and extremely cheap. I took the metro to Place de la Concorde which is right next to where I’d previously seen these crepe stands. A little bit of background, Place de la Concorde is well-known because it was where thousands of people were guillotined during the French Revolution, and has since been a popular place for other protests due to its historical relevance. When I got up the stairs out of the metro, I was met with the sight of Gilets Jaunes on my left and the Gendarmerie (the French riot police) on my right. I stopped in my tracks and considered: was the crepe worth it? That question was answered fairly quickly as I saw some casseurs already starting to pick fights. I immediately retreated into the metro, the crepe completely forgotten. A woman passed me as I headed back in and she asked me if where I was coming from was an exit. I told her yes, but that I wouldn’t recommend it because there was a confrontation happening there. This is the advice that I would give to everyone who asks me about the Gilets Jaunes: don’t go looking for them, and when something doesn’t feel right or when you see them and the police together, avoid them at all costs. For my friends that got tear gassed, it is unfortunate that that happened to them. However, part of staying safe is being smart about where you go and being flexible with your schedule. If I were in the same situation as my friends, instead of leaving the store, I would have stayed inside and waited until the coast was clear because safety is much more important.

I think that explains pretty well the part of the warning about “civil unrest” and now for the “terrorism” aspect.

The Monday after the Gilets Jaunes’ most violent weekend, I was eating breakfast and listening to the radio with my host mom, Katherine. The radio hosts were discussing new measures that would be taken in order to combat the violent activities of some Gilets Jaunes. They explained that after all of the vandalism committed by certain casseurs, the French government would be releasing the national army to protect national monuments. What they said next I didn’t quite understand so Katherine helped better explain it. She told me that when someone commits an act such as vandalizing a national monument in France, they are no longer a criminal, they are considered a terrorist. This is where I think something has been lost in translation. Over the past months that I have been here, I have heard nothing about any terrorist groups plotting any attacks in Paris from any of the media outlets that I have been following. I was quite shocked when I heard that terrorism was one of the factors cited by the U.S. Embassy for raising this advisory. This isn’t to say that there is no possibility of some kind of attack being plotted against Paris, it’s just to say that I haven’t heard or read anything about it. That being said, this “terrorism” that the U.S. Embassy has discussed is possibly linked more with a situation that has been misinterpreted or that they have intelligence that has not been released to the general public.

If, in fact, there were to be some type of extreme danger in Paris, similar to the attacks of November 13, 2015, quite frankly, I would be scared. And, I came to France knowing that that event took place in the city that I would be moving to. However, I am also from a country that has been the setting of various acts of terrorism and I’m not afraid to live there, so why should I be afraid to live here? In fact, I believe that at one point other countries had placed high travel advisories on travel to the United States due to our policies on guns.

In short, yes, I do feel safe in France as I know that I’m at just as high a risk of becoming a victim of violence here or anywhere else in the world. I won’t spend my time worrying about the possibility of being attacked when I could be out exploring the beautiful country I’m in. Life is too short to live in fear of the “what-ifs”.

So now that I’ve talked about the biggest concerns that people have about the safety of France as a whole, I’ll cover some more frequent causes for worry for those who plan to visit, or know someone visiting Paris.

 

PICKPOCKETS and SCAMMERS

When I originally told people that I was going to study in Paris, one of the first questions to come up was “oh, but what if you get pickpocketed?” and then they would proceed to tell me some story about their second cousin’s spouse who got robbed on the streets of Paris. I’ll be frank with this one: I have never *knock on wood* been pickpocketed; I’ll explain how while we talk about why certain people get targeted more commonly by pickpocketers than others.

There’s a couple speaking loudly in a language that is not French in the metro. They are in their sixties wearing backpacks on their fronts and looking at their handy-dandy pocket map of Paris. As they filter out of the train and up the stairs to street level, a young man trips on the stairs in front of them. While the nice couple is helping this young guy up, another person comes and snatches the older man’s wallet from his pocket. It isn’t until five minutes later that the man reaches into his pocket to find that his wallet is missing. This is one of the stories that I heard during my orientation here and it demonstrates exactly what not to do in Paris in order to not get pickpocketed.

Quite likely, the primary factor that makes someone a target is how they dress. If you’re wearing a backpack on your chest you may as well have a massive neon flashing sign pointing to yourself with the word “TOURIST” written out on it. Literally, no Parisian person ever does this. And while you think you’re being smart about not letting someone open your backpack without you looking, really you’re just doing yourself a disservice by indicating to everyone who sees you that you do not live here and as such, you are vulnerable because you don’t know the local tricks that thieves use to rob you. Inversely, so many people come to Paris on vacation to enjoy all the amazing things that the city has to offer, one of the most popular being French fashion. I kid you not, I have seen people in head-to- toe couture with their designer handbags and thousands of dollars in jewelry. This is just as bad as tourist fashion. Basically, when people dress like this they are advertising to people that they are wealthy, and therefore make themselves targets for pickpockets. Essentially, a happy medium between American tourist and fashion blogger is the way to go because you can blend in, and ultimately avoid unwanted attention from thieves.

Sometimes, blending in just doesn’t work out so here are a couple solutions to keep pickpockets at bay and protect yourself the best that you can.

If you are really worried about someone taking something from your bag without your knowledge, keep valuables in zipped pockets, money belts, or in the innermost parts of your backpack. One word of caution about keeping valuables in bags is that it is not uncommon for people to cut open bags with knives. Please be cautious about what you choose to carry your belongings in. One of the girls I met during my study abroad orientation told me she didn’t want to wear a backpack so she got a sturdy shoulder bag that zips. She could blend in better with the French and keep an eye on her bag if she ever felt like she might be the target of pickpocketing.

It’s also a really good idea to research common scams or techniques that pickpockets use to steal from you. Most Parisians are incredibly familiar with all of them so they know how to recognize a trap when they see one. Familiarize yourself with common schemes so that you don’t have to become a victim. Before I came to France, I watched a lot of videos about scams that specifically target tourists in Paris. If you’re curious, this is the best one that I’ve found:

As someone who has been in Paris for over three months, I feel like I know how to blend in enough so as not to make myself a target. Even so, if it were to happen despite preventative measures, the best solution is to be as loud as possible and make a scene because that is the exact opposite of what thieves want. They will abandon ship as soon as you start to draw attention to the fact that they were trying to rob you, so it’s best not to be shy.

 

AS A WOMAN IN A BIG CITY

I will admit that as a female in Paris, sometimes I do not feel incredibly safe. In discussing with lots of other women here, they all have really similar experiences. They’ve all had experiences in their day-to-day lives where certain men have made them feel really uncomfortable, to say the least.

One of the teachers at CIEE, a parisienne through and through, spoke about getting in the metro and having men just stare at her, and not in a good way either. This is actually something that I’ve experienced quite frequently and it is incredibly uncomfortable. They just stare at you and when you make eye contact they don’t look away. I’ve never felt unsafe or threatened when this kind of situation has occurred because there are plenty of other people around, but really the only word I can use to describe it is unsettling.

Aside from weird eye contact, there is also the matter of catcalling. Of all of my female friends that I’ve talked to, literally every one of them have been catcalled at least once since they’ve been in Paris. This is pretty generous of a statistic to give because it does happen quite frequently. However, this happens pretty much everywhere else in the world so unfortunately, as a woman, I just have to ignore it in the hopes that the man won’t continue.

Lastly, walking alone at night. Paris is known as the City of Lights which is nice for us gals who are walking back home at night. Paris itself is really well-lit at night so it’s not like you are walking around in complete darkness! Whenever I have to walk in the dark, I don’t exactly feel scared doing so. It is so well-lit and there are usually always people out because it is such a touristy city. I wouldn’t say I necessarily recommend walking alone at night because I don’t, but I also won’t say that I feel afraid doing so. That being said, it’s also a good idea to consider asking a friend to walk with you to your neighborhood and definitely try to avoid distractions like using your phone or listening to music until you are safely inside.

All in all, Paris is not a city to let your guard down in, but it also isn’t a place that should seem intimidating or scary. As long as you are well-informed and smart about what you do and where you go, it’s more than likely that you’ll have a safe and pleasant stay in Paris.

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