Police clash with souvenir sellers under Eiffel Tower

They are a familiar sight to visitors to the Eiffel Tower: souvenir sellers hawking knick-knacks ranging from plastic models of the famous structure to hats that double as umbrellas. But the police are not impressed, and following clashes with the vendors at the weekend, have vowed to crack down.

The director of the Paris prefect's office has announced that "each illegal seller will be systematically arrested and there will no longer be any tolerance for these sales". And in a sign of how seriously they are taking the situation, the prefecture has deployed the CRS, France's anti-riot force. "We have decided to occupy the area, to have police there nearly 24 hours a day," said Jean-Luc Mercier, the deputy director of police for the Paris region.

On most days, there are street sellers every few metres all the way from the Champ de Mars, behind the Eiffel Tower, to the Place du Trocadéro, about a kilometre away on the other side, but yesterday most of the sellers kept away. There were seven police vans deployed in the area, and pairs of CRS officers patrolled the streets.

Laws brought in this March allow police to bring in the sellers for questioning, and up to 550 have been taken in since then. Mr Mercier said the reinforced police presence has been in place for several months, but it was only yesterday that the sellers had dispersed.

Clashes began on Friday after one of the street sellers was electrocuted on a metro line while running from the police. His life is no longer in danger, but vendors were outraged. As the police moved forward on Friday evening, the sellers retreated into the darkness, some of them shouting "racists". Three policemen were injured on Sunday by projectiles thrown by street sellers.

Most of the illegal sellers come from sub-Saharan Africa or the Indian sub-continent. Mr Mercier said the illegal sellers have told him they can make up to €500 (£440) day. Police figures show there are sometimes up to 300 vendors under the Eiffel Tower.

"They are more numerous than the tourists," said Ivan Bratacos, who runs a souvenir stall on Place de Trocadéro. "Their numbers have tripled in the last three years and our profits have gone down 300 per cent in that time."

In the Eiffel Tower's official shop, a mini tower costs €2; the street sellers charge €1 for five. The relations between the street sellers and local stall-holders have got worse as the number of street sellers has increased. Shopkeeper Ali Gamon has a scar on his head. He said he had to have eight stitches after a street seller hit him with a 40cm Eiffel Tower a couple of years ago. "We're dying," said another souvenir shopkeeper. "This is the last year for us. We can't stand up against them financially."

But the street sellers – many of whom police say are in France illegally – retort that they have to work to make a living and provide for their families. "It's not legal what we do, but we don't have a choice," said one, a refugee from Guinea, who wished to remain anonymous. "We don't have the papers to work, but we need to make a living."

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