Beggars banned in test of French tolerance

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The Independent Online


A sharp debate has broken out in France on a subject the French have traditionally seemed more relaxed about than the British: begging.

The controversy erupted after the new mayors of several cities decided to outlaw begging in response to complaints from the public and worries about the effect on tourism.

The first to introduce a ban two weeks ago was the western port of La Rochelle. The mayor, Michel Crepeau, said he was acting to prevent the extreme right National Front gaining a foothold in the town - a justification which led to accusations that he was implementing National Front policies.

In his defence, Mr Crepeau said that beggars were buyingbeer with their takings and became aggressive when drunk. He said he had had numerous complaints. "Now, the police will no longer be able to say they can't do anything about it," he said.

Since then two towns on the nearby Ile de Re, the Pyrenees towns of Tarbes and Pau, and Valence in the southern Rhone have all introduced similar bans. Their decrees outlaw not just importuning but the consumption of alcohol in public places and sleeping or lying around on the streets. The maximum penalty is a 250 franc fine. Other cities, including Nice, are expected to introduce similar measures.

The bans have been attacked by lobby groups for the poor and homeless. A spokesman for the Catholic charity Secours said that if begging was on the increase it reflected an increase in social dislocation. The housing action group DAL held a "lie-in" on one of La Rochelle's main streets on Sunday in which about 50 people took part.

The measures seem to be a response to a new problem, similar to that in Britain, where mostly young homeless people have started to congregate in resort towns. In Paris and the big southern cities, like Marseilles, where beggars have long been almost a fixture, the phenomenon is treated by residents with tolerance and as a fact of life.

Although begging is officially banned on the Paris metro - there are notices in every carriage citing the relevant paragraph of the legal code - scarcely a journey goes by without someone soliciting money.

Some give a recitation of their woes before passing round their cap, others offer entertainment on accordions or saxophones. Yet others hang up a curtain and offer mini-puppet shows. Observation suggests that the best performers get the best rewards: begging has become a competitive business.