French fare-dodgers get organized

French fare-dodgers get organized

The Parisians who flooded the streets of France’s capital city this morning — part of a countrywide push-back against President Nicolas Sarkozy’s proposed austerity plan (which includes, among other simply intolerable measures, a new retirement age of 62) —  are grabbing headlines this week, but their attempts at mobilization pale in comparison to the budding subversion of another, surprising set of malcontents: unhappy — and, as it turns out, unlawful — commuters.

Recently, turnstile hoppers (hardly a new breed of traveler in the Parisian subway system) have ratcheted up their disdain for transit regulations, coming together in so-called mutuelles des fraudeurs to protect themselves against fare-dodging fines — and, while they’re at it, to stick it to the man. The mutuelles resemble a hybrid insurance agency and support group: Members pay monthly dues of about $8.50 and, in return, are guaranteed full reimbursement for any fines they receive for "forgoing" the proper subway fee. (Typical fares are $2; typical fines are $60.) There are a few technicalities, of course: For example, members are strongly urged to pay their fines to officials upfront and are only assured compensation by the mutuelle if they show up in person at weekly meetings (usually held in avant-garde coffee shops).

Fare-dodging may look like a straightforward variation on petty theft — a money-saving technique that regrettably comes at the expense of the law — but the "fradeurs" insist they’re not just pinching pennies: They’re taking a stand. "Gildas" (a mutuelle leader who, in the true style of a subversive, declines to give his last because "we don’t like this type of questions") has a surprisingly well-thought-out — if ill-reasoned — explanation for his behavior.  

"There are things in France which are supposed to be free – schools, health. So why not transportation? It’s not a question of money…. It’s a political question."

He fashions himself as a historic revolutionary, not an everyday criminal: "It’s a way to resist together," he says. "We can make solidarity."

Lest any American commuters (or communists) start getting ideas, be warned: At least in Virginia, Metro miscreants pay for their mistakes with a visit to court.