Secret pacts smooth life for the in crowd

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It was one of the first warm days of spring. For only the second or third time this year, the cafe tables had colonised the entire pavement at the top of the Avenue Carnot, the most obscure of the 12 spokes of the Etoile, surrounding the Arc de Triomphe.

At one of the tables there sat a smartly dressed thirtysomething woman in a Paddington Bear hat. She was eating steak hache - raw mince meat and egg - with two male companions. Without warning, she uttered a piercing shriek and jumped to her feet. Fifty tables of French people stopped eating simultaneously (a significant achievement) and stared at madame. Had she found a cockroach in her lunch? Had one of her companions made an improper remark? Was a giant lizard eating the Eiffel Tower?

She stood pointing in silent, accusing horror at a tow-truck, which was removing an old and battered, black Citroen. It was her car, she loudly informed her pavement audience. Her tone was self-pitying, confident of sympathy, as if she had suffered some natural disaster. Worse still, she protested, her dog was inside the car.

There was no laughter. The pavement audience was wholly on the side of madame. She scampered self-righteously after the tow truck, as rapidly as her high heels would allow. One of her companions followed. The audience watched, entranced, as they caught up with the truck two traffic lights away.

It was "pas juste", the pavement audience concurred. It was probably "illegale". "They" had no right to tow a car with a dog inside it. "Le pauvre bete" would be thirsty, and so on.

No voice was raised to suggest that madame should perhaps not have parked her car, and dog, utterly illegally, and obstructively, on the Rue Tilsit. This useful thoroughfare forms part of what we call the "baby Etoile", a one-way street which rings the Etoile itself, and provides a refuge for those motorists who prefer not to enter the most terrifying automotive whirlpool in the world. In London terms, it was as if madame had parked in Piccadilly Circus.

She returned a few minutes later, defeated but unabashed. "They" had brazenly refused to allow her even to recover her dog, she announced, scandalised. "They" had said they had a perfect right to take both dog and car. "They" had said she could recover both from the car pound in exchange for Fr1,200 (pounds 130). More grumbling of sympathy and discontent from the pavement audience. Finally, Madame sat down and completed her, by now rather expensive, lunch.

Mysterious scenes from Parisian life, number two: On the other side of the Etoile (no one ever calls it the Place Charles de Gaulle), is the second grandest of the 12 spokes, the Avenue Foch. It would be truer to say that the Avenue Foch used to be grand. It now has the reputation of being the home of the dubiously rich and foreign: in other words of Russians and Arabs and others living on newly laundered money (not everyone in the avenue, of course, but enough to tarnish its reputation).

The Avenue Foch, as a result, is also one of the places in Paris haunted by up-market, motorised prostitutes.

On our walk to school each morning, Charlie insists on making a slight detour along the Rue Rude (you cannot make these things up), which emerges on to the Avenue Foch just beside the Irish Embassy. On precisely this corner, on some mornings, and almost all lunchtimes and afternoons, a brand-new electric-blue Ford Sierra can be found, parked - illegally - with two wheels on the pavement.

In the driver's seat, to Charlie's puzzlement and intense curiosity, there is always the same "strange lady", wearing a shoulder-less, leopard-skin bodysuit. In the depths of the January and February cold, Charlie became concerned for the strange lady's warmth and welfare.

On the same day as the dog-in-a-car incident, two typically brutal-looking female traffic wardens were striding purposefully along the Avenue Foch towards the Rue Rude. Faithful as ever, Madame Leopardskin's blue Sierra was parked on the corner of the Rue Rude. A lively confrontation seemed unavoidable.

When she saw the wardens coming, madame became agitated. She began to wave. The wardens waved enthusiastically back at her. The uniformed ladies on their beat exchanged warm greetings with the uniformed lady on her beat. Then they walked on.

The obvious explanation is that the wardens were being paid off by Madame Leopardskin.This is not necessarily so. France operates on familiarity and routine. Strangers (and not just foreigners) have the rule-book thrown at them. For regulars (including foreigners), there is generally another rule book, kept under the counter, which is often called "Systeme D".

The simple fact of being on the corner day after day, treating the traffic wardens with politeness, might easily be enough to win Madame Leopardskin her immunity from parking tickets.

The woman with the dog in the car evidently felt that she deserved the same kind of immunity. Hence, her genuine outrage when her car appeared before her table at the end of a towing hook. On reflection, it might be that the lunching woman had been using the old dog-in-the-car trick for years.