Santas on transvestite charge

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LIFE IS fraught for Santa Claus in the last days of December - but nowhere more so than in France. Freelance Santa Clauses who haunt the shopping boulevards of Paris are being hounded by the police, accused, of being "transvestis" or "transvestites".

If that were not humiliating enough, almost all the big stores have closed down their grottoes and laid off their Santas, claiming lack of demand.

Under an ancient Parisian by-law, it is forbidden to "appear in disguise on a public thoroughfare", except at officially approved carnival times. The law is being applied rigorously this year at the demand of the big stores - the same premises that have refused to hire Santas and instead have put in their place magicians or toy-demonstrators.

The stores - Printemps, Galeries Lafayette and Samaritaine - have stalls on the pavement selling seasonal gifts. They resent their customers being harassed by street photographers, who work with accomplices dressed in fading red robes and ill-fitting beards.

A newer law forbids street photographers from patrolling outside the stores. Instead of relying on this law alone, the police have been throwing both the new and old ("no disguises") chapters of the book at the Santa- and-snapper teams.

Michel and his colleague Bruno, who charge 50 francs (pounds 5.50) a picture have paid out several instant fines of pounds 100 to pounds 150 a time. Michel says he has found himself on the unusual charge of "taking photographs without permission on a public road in the company of a transvestite" ( "Transvesti" can also mean "a person in fancy-dress" but it usually mean a cross- dresser.)

The photographers protest that life is already hard enough. "Most people are only interested in the moving displays in the shop windows," said Michel. "All we get these days is a few people in from the provinces who've forgotten their cameras."