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Paris Metro's cheaters say solidarity is the ticket

Scofflaws who jump the turnstiles or enter through the exits have formed an insurance fund that pays if they get caught.

June 22, 2010|By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times
  • For about $8.50 a month, Paris subway scofflaws can relax, knowing that, if they're fined, an insurance fund of cheaters will pay.
For about $8.50 a month, Paris subway scofflaws can relax, knowing that,… (Newscom )

Reporting from Paris — Once more to the barricades! And over them too.

The fare dodgers who jump the turnstiles or sneak in through exit barriers on the Paris Metro are practically as much a fixture of the city as the subway itself.

Those who get caught without a proper ticket, though, face fines of up to $60. So what's a poor freeloader to do?

The answer, here in the land that gave the world the motto "All for one, one for all," is as typically French as it is ingenious: They've banded together to set up what are, essentially, scofflaw insurance funds, seasoned with a dollop of revolutionary fervor.

For about $8.50 a month, those who join one of these raffish-sounding mutuelles des fraudeurs can rest easy knowing that, if they get busted for refusing to be so bourgeois as to pay to use public transit, the fund will cough up the money for the fine.

It provides a little peace of mind, however ethically dubious, in a time of economic uncertainty.

But for many of these fraudeurs, cheating the system and forming a co-op isn't just about saving money; it's about striking a blow against a capitalist state that favors the haves over the have-nots. Fare dodgers of the world, unite!

"It's a way to resist together," declared Gildas, 30, a leader of the mutuelle movement. "We can make solidarity."

He was speaking late one morning at a small Parisian cafe, where he fortified himself with orange juice but declined to give his last name or other personal details. ("We don't like this type of questions.")

Free rides on the Metro may not have been exactly what the architects of the French Revolution had in mind when they rose up in the cause of "liberte, egalite, fraternite" more than two centuries ago.

But for Gildas, a rebel whose unshaven cheeks, longish hair and John Lennon glasses seem straight out of French central casting, a straight line can be drawn from the left-wing principles and idealism of the 18th century to the present day.

"There are things in France which are supposed to be free — schools, health. So why not transportation?" he said. "It's not a question of money.... It's a political question."

Tres bien. But it's hard not to bring money into the equation, at least a little bit.

It costs about $9 billion a year to maintain and operate the public transit system in the greater Paris region, including trains, subway, trams and buses, said Sebastien Mabille, a spokesman for the transportation union STIF.

If the fraudeurs "want free travel, they'll have to come up with some sort of solution to find" the $3.9 billion of the budget generated by ticket sales, Mabille said.

The fare cheats counter by saying that simply jettisoning everything related to ticket sales and enforcement, the government would save a bundle. Higher taxes for the rich are, of course, a no-brainer.

Gildas rides the subway at least three times a day, and avoids payment as "a political act." Besides, he said, "it's quite easy."

Back in 2001 or so, he and a group of fellow travelers, in both the literal and metaphorical senses, formed the Network for the Abolition of Paid Transport, "the beginning of our struggle," Gildas calls it. The group's initials in French mimic those of the agency that runs the Metro and buses, and to the agency's logo, which looks like the outline of a face, abolitionists added a raised fist.

Their shared laments about oppression by official fines inspired about a dozen adherents to set up the first mutual insurance fund a few years ago.

Now at least six or seven such funds exist around Paris, some based at universities, others organized by arrondissement, or district.

The original group boasts about 20 to 30 members, people mostly between the ages of 20 and 40, including students, workers and some who are jobless, Gildas said. They meet once a month, most recently in a building on a street named for Voltaire, the philosopher whose writings influenced the revolution, near a bookshop featuring anti-fascist badges and anarchist magazines.

Alas, despite its anti-authority streak, the mutuelle has had to lay down some rules.

Dues are collectable each month. Members who get nailed by Metro ticket inspectors are strongly encouraged to pay their fines on the spot if they can, to avoid incurring higher charges. To be reimbursed, a member must appear in person at the group's monthly meeting.

The mutuelle pays out for two to four fines a month, on average. At each get-together, the fund's ledger is open for all to see, in pursuit of maximum transparency among this group of dedicated cheaters.

"It's a system that functions on trust," Gildas explained, with no hint of irony.

Official efforts to stamp out fare evasion, which costs the Metro and bus system an estimated $100 million a year, have proved fruitless. Several dutiful ticket buyers interviewed at a Metro stop in eastern Paris mostly offered a Gallic shrug at the mention of freeloaders' activities, or even expressions of support.

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