All the stuff you never knew you needed to know about life in rural France.....and all the stuff the books and magazines won't tell you.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

The bold gendarmes..

GendarmesImage by Elsemiguel via Flickr
Crime is everywhere.....

We have just returned from making a series of appointments at the main hospital in San Jose...San Juan de Dios. It is a confusing place on first sight, a city within a city, and while we managed to find the first three sections we had to visit, the fourth was a total puzzle.

We found the chapel.....we found a Spanish Colonial building with a central garden full of doctors smoking frantically under the palms....we found a room of derelict beds...but when we had passed the same security guard for the third time we knew it was time to seek help.
We stuck our noses in through the next open door we found and explained the problem.

After a few moments a gentleman who spoke impeccable English emerged and took us to the appropriate department, dealt with the appointment system and led us back to civilisation.

On the way we passed a back gate giving out onto a park which would have been a convenient exit for the shopping we had planned to do but our guide shook his head.

Much too dangerous. Too many young men sleeping rough in that park...drugs....robberies...
I'll take you back to the main entrance.

Which he did.
They worry about crime in San Jose.

On returning home, there was an e mail from a friend in France giving the news.

One of the local bars had just been burgled and five thousand Euro's worth of tobacco had been stolen...mark you, given the plunge in the value of the Euro following Ireland's latest bit of brinkmanship that is probably seven and a half thousand Euro's worth by now.

I know that bar.
When I first moved to the commune it was run a an elderly gentleman whom I thought of as Pinkerton as he never seemed to sleep.
If you wanted cigarettes at five in the morning...he was open.
If the urge for a beer took you at one in the morning....he was open.
He made a fortune and sold out to a dismal character who thought of the bar as a plaything...
If he slept in, the bar was closed until he woke up....
If he went away for the weekend, the bar was closed....
Not altogether surprisingly, custom drifted away to the other bar, the one on the square, which had also managed to take over the tobacco monopoly from Pinkerton... a fact he had mysteriously not disclosed to Monsieur Dismal.

One Sunday the dismal one had had enough. He filled a bucket with stones and headed for the bar on the square to do execution on its windows (here) and shortly after vanished from the scene.

The bar was unsold for quite a while and then there was a flurry of activity.
The bar on the square changed hands and the other one opened again....with the tobacco monopoly. I do not even pretend to know how this was arrived at, but this was the case.

The new proprietor was a thin man hiding behind a moustache which was a cross between Viva Zapata and Asterix the Gaul who did not open the doors until late morning and kept them...or some of until dawn.

His daytime crowd were the local hillbillies....specialists in fast cars and slow women.
A friend once dropped in there for cigarettes one afternoon and came out faster than he went in.

It's like in the westerns, he said.

You go in and as soon as the door opens all conversation falls silent and every head swivels towards you.
It makes you think of 'Deliverance'.
Only worse....they all look alike.

Well, they would. The local hillbillies don't mix or mate with anyone whose grandmother their grandfather had not known in the Biblical sense.

In the evening, the lights would go on in the annexe next to the bar and cars and motorbikes bearing exotic numberplates.....from the next department, that is....would start to arrive.
The music would start and the nightmare begin for the neighbours.
Motors revving, horns blaring and the unbearable 'thump thump' of the bass going on until just before dawn.
These were the night owls.

Everyone complained to the maire....who took no notice.
Then they complained to the gendarmerie....who occasionally came by during hillbilly hour and noted nothing out of the ordinary.

The baker, the producer of razor edged slabs of concrete made from readymix, went round to complain.
He was rewarded by two hours of a car horn concerto.

Then things became quieter.
The annexe was still open, but things started to change. The cars were more expensive. The motorbikes were Harley Davidsons. The clientele were now mainly from the regional capital, over an hour away by car.
What could be tempting these sophisticates from their local bars and nightclubs to drive to a one horse dorp after dark?

The postlady had her suspicions which were confirmed when some young men from the village who frequented the annexe after dark were found in possession of drugs in the local town.

Normally, the police and gendarmerie go mad once they have seized drugs....the press is full of their derring do in seizing a fingernail sized packet of marijauna estimated at some astronomical street value from someone unlucky enough to have been caught in a breath test.

They go mad before they have seized them too.
I was around when two rival gendarmerie outfits staked out a field of marijuana in the commune in which I then lived, which was on the border between two departments and, co incidentally, between two regions.
As anyone living in rural France knows, there is a total blackout on communication between can't even find out if there is a vide grenier in the village down the road but just over the demarcation line without 'phoning someone who lives on the other side, and communication between public authorities is the same.
So one department's gendarmerie were staking out one set of access roads, and the other the other...and never the twain did meet.
They were waiting for the moment when the crop would be harvested.
Once the first cut was made, both forces rushed in, men in flak jackets with megaphones and dogs, while the chap responsible escaped in the melee.
It then turned out that he was growing it under licence.

In the case of these young men, however, it was decided not to prosecute.
One factor in this decision could have been that one of them was the son of a local notable.....but it was interesting that no enquiries were made of the owner of the visits from the nothing.

It was rather similar to the lack of action when the supermarket booze shelves were being emptied regularly on the weekends.....the gendarmerie seemed to be very loathe to pursue the matter.

The booze thefts finally stopped when the supermarket franchise holder and a couple of friends locked themselves into the premises for the weekend.
They found that someone else had had the same idea.
The owner of the key cutting kiosk in the gallery of shops in the same building.
Once collared, something else became clear.
The gendarmerie were not interested because they were getting a cut of the haul.

Now, the postlady could not say that the gendarmerie were getting a cut of whatever was going on at the bar, after all, they were not responsible for the decision not to prosecute, but she reckoned, from the lack of interest in the earlier disturbances, that they were certainly getting a cut of something.

And if that shocks you, you know very little about the gendarmerie in the quiet, out of the way areas of France.

Still, having had a break in at the bar, they are appealing for witnesses.
They'd be lucky!

I can remember when I had not long been in France that a gang drove a bulldozer into the square of the next village and straight into the Post Office, where they pulled the safe into its bucket and drove off.
How many witnesses do you think there were from that square of fully inhabited houses?

Any more than when the owner of the local petrol station was held up at gunpoint for his takings.....or the owner of the hardware store some months later....which explains why the village now has no Post Office, no petrol station and no hardware store.

Nothing goes unobserved in rural France.....Maurice Genevoix's claim that whatever you are doing is being observed from under the visor of a cap is accurate in my experience....but not much is said openly either.
Particularly not to the gendarmerie.
You never know who might be related to the person or persons you saw.
Or you know all too well.

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  1. I have no idea what area you lived in, during your time France. Your life was ovviously the complete opposite to ours. We are in the country, I have never seen any crime around us. We have plenty of contact with other communes, and if I want to go to a vide grenier in another village there is masses of advertising about. Plus of course a booklet with all information can be obtained with ease from the museum. If that fails which it does not very often, it is very easy to check it all on the websites. Viva la France. Diane

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  3. Diane, I've just revised what I first posted as it looked, on hindsight...two seconds after pressing the a put down which was not at all what I had intended.


    I'm really glad you're enjoying your life in France...there's an awful lot to enjoy.

    I don't claim to have the 'inside knowledge' of rural France...everyone has their own experiences.

    These are mine.
    Some are happy, some not, some positive, some negative.....but that's how life is made up.

  4. Another interesting tale, Fly. Good job you kept both blogs.

  5. Oh it's always obvious here when a crime is committed and not reported to the jandarma, that somewhere down the line either they (the jandarma) or someone "important" is involved or related to someone involved!

    Hope everything is going well in Costa Rica and that you are both enjoying your new life xx

  6. I have to say, France sounds a real home from home. Some of my neighbours would fit right in. I might send them a travel brochure and hope they take the hint. ;-)

  7. e..I won't be on here for ever, but there's still a fair bit i would like to say about France...and if I can sell the house and move every penny out of the jurisdiction what I'll be saying will be distinctly hot!

    Ayak, yes, I think it's the same anywhere, really.
    Thanks, we have relaxed and we're getting Mr. Fly into the NHS...the he's running backwards and forwards to hospitals and clinics like a blue a...d Mr. Fly!

  8. Steve...the students, perhaps...? The occupants of chav towers would certainly find some fellow travellers among the local Britpack.

  9. Fly, this is so true of my experiences in France too. We lived in one of the most sparsely populated departments, you couldn't really get more rural than where we were. I mistakenly thought rural France was crime free, that's what everyone told me, but the reality was far different. I used to leave my doors unlocked until I was talking to a French friend who told me that he didn't even go upstairs without locking his front door!We were chatting in the village and he was so horrified that he called over some other people to tell me in no uncertain terms that leaving my doors unlocked was madness! Sure enough, we were the victims of crime twice in France in our 5 years there whereas we have never had any problems in the UK where I have lived for far longer. And the rural drug problem, dreadful! I watched dealers dishing out drugs outside my children's college and my son's best friend's sister, whilst high on drugs, drove her car off the road, killing her passenger, another boy from the village, and seriously injuring herself and the other passenger. She has never fully regained her health. It was so sad. We lived very close to the departemental border and our children went to school in the neighbouring departement. They might just as well have gone to school in a foreign country. The academie for our own departement didn't speak to the one where they went to school, school transport was a nightmare because it was administered by our departement but picked children up in the neighbouring one and when I was rushed to hospital one night the ambulance actually stopped at the departemental border and offloaded me into another ambulance as they didn't do cross border transfers. Bizarre! Sadly, the official crime statistics for France show an inexorable rise as the financial crisis continues, particularly armed robberies, and you are still far more likely to be murdered in France than in the UK. Stabbings were rife in our neck of the woods too. In fact, during our last trip, there was a murder in the village where we were staying. A poor man down from Paris was bludgeoned to death in his holiday home. The bar in the next village was burned down (arson)and the local Renault dealer had ALL the cars stolen from his forecourt. My little West Country town is tame by comparison!

  10. P(V)LiF, you have to have lived it,don't you?

    Right from the start neighbours told me to keep everything under lock and key, and you're so sadly right about the rural drug scene.

    As for the departmental boundaries...and the newspapers that only cover one department and not the next door bit...we always took Mr. Fly to hospital ourselves when emergency struck otherwise he would have been taken to one unable to treat him to await authorisation to go to the one which the next department!

  11. I spend about half my time in Wiltshire; about half in rural Wales. There are crimes in each area but they differ as do attitudes. Few people in Wiltshire go poaching.

  12. Mark, that was my experience in rural France too.

  13. I always laugh at your posts, even when my experience leads me to believe only a part of them.
    However, when you said "You never know who might be related to the person or persons you saw." That is all too true.

  14. Dedene, isn't it just!
    You clearly don't mix in the same other side of the tracks circles as I did!

  15. Midsomer Murders is not far off really, is it?

    I was burgled twice too, by gypsies, thanks to the appalling quality of the building I was renting at the time. They just pushed up the sliding windows and helped themselves.

    Nowadays it's gangs from Eastern Europe who come and 'do' a quarter, or village, apparently. There's a wave of crime, and then it stops. The local cops are completely out of their league against these vicious mobs.

  16. Sarah, my area had been spared all that, luckily but the crime level was my view... quite high, usually break ins at bars, taking the cigarettes and the scratch cards, but ram raids weren't uncommon either.

    And this is in the depths of the country!

  17. "the gendarmerie seemed to be very loathe to pursue the matter." I confirm...
    je confirme c'est bien comme ça chez nous, en France.

  18. france 3 limousin,

    just as long as you don't expect the starry eyed foreigners to believe you...

    I loved the blog and good luck with the campaign.