John Lichfield: Our Man in Paris

The plot thickens in the curious case of Armani Man, a modern European mystery


I have stumbled on a mystery "sans frontières". I have uncovered a bizarre and unsettling pattern of pan-European crime (quite apart from the unforgiveable French and Dutch "no" votes in the euro-referenda).

I have stumbled on a mystery "sans frontières". I have uncovered a bizarre and unsettling pattern of pan-European crime (quite apart from the unforgiveable French and Dutch "no" votes in the euro-referenda).

In my last column, I described an incident in which I was approached in Paris by an Italian in a car who wanted to give me an Armani suit. When I refused the gift, he swore and drove off at high speed.

I, and The Independent, have since been inundated with e-mails and letters describing similar puzzling encounters.

Paul Wheeler sent me the following message from London: "I was walking towards Cromwell Road when a car screeched to a halt and the driver called out. I assumed he wanted directions until he asked if I spoke Italian. When I said I didn't, he carried on rapidly in fractured English, and from the little I understood, was saying he had to get to Heathrow quickly, but first needed to get rid of some mens' Italian clothes lying on his back seat.

"He said: 'I have Armani, Versace, everything. You want them? Is free. Here, come, look .' He was well-built, in his 40s and seemed overwrought. When I walked on, he yelled something I took to be less than polite, then made a tyre-burning five-point turn and sped off."

David Roberts had the same experience in Brighton last month: "I was approached by a man in a car and I was expecting him to ask for street directions. He told me he was an Italian and made a point of showing me his EU Italian passport and air tickets ...

"He pointed to a plastic bag on the car seat beside him and told me he had a jacket in it which I could have as a present ... I declined and he drove off. Throughout the encounter he was polite."

Other letters or anecdotes place Armani Man at locations across Europe from Verona to Paris. He has also appeared in Bristol, Norfolk, in a Sainsbury's car-park in Derby and at the Birch Service Station (westbound) on the M62 near Manchester.

What is going on? The first deduction that we can make is that, like Santa Claus and the Loch Ness Monster, there cannot be just one Armani Man. There must be legions of Armani Men, all using the same pitch or script.

He is variously reported as being young, old, middle-aged, short, tall, thin and well-built, rude and polite.

What is his game? I consulted the Metropolitan Police and the Préfecture de Police in Paris. Scotland Yard, just like in the Sherlock Holmes stories, showed the intellectual curiosity of a truncheon. A bored-sounding woman in the press office refused even to pass on the details of this authentic "three-pipe problem" (Sherlock Holmes' phrase, as quoted by Mr Wheeler).

The Préfecture de Police in Paris was very interested indeed. They asked me to send them a long, written account of my assembled evidence. They rang back to say that the Armani Man "phenomenon" was "unknown to the Paris police".

It turned out that the police head of communications was being fired that day. I do not think that he treated this important investigation with the care that it deserved.

Searches on the internet reveal that Armani Man is also active in the US - more fruitfully than in Europe, it seems. There are several plaintive messages from Americans who have handed over sums as large as $400 (£220) to distressed Italians in cars wanting to get rid of "free" Armani suits or jackets.

It appears that Armani Man is just a vulgar con-man. The suits are bait to hook the gullible. They lead into a complex sob story about robbery or personal bereavement. How disappointing.

PS: I also said last time that no Armani suit would be small enough to fit me. As a result, I received an e-mail from Messrs Norton and Townsend, a tailor in London which measures you in your home or office.

Thank you gentlemen but I think I will stick with my present tailors, the shipyards of Les Chantiers de L'Atlantique in Saint-Nazaire.

Smooth running

Who says that France is an "immobile" country, where it is impossible to change anything?

Recently the Avenue des Champs Elysées was transformed into a sports stadium for one day to boost the Paris bid for the 2012 Olympics.

The top end of the avenue became a running track, marked out on a giant carpet. To give the carpet a smooth base, the higgledy-piggledy cobbles of the avenue were covered in tarmac for a distance of 400 metres. The most beautiful street in the world took on the appearance of a brand-new, suburban by-pass.

I assumed that this immaculate but ugly surface would remain indefinitely. It lasted for five days. The pristine tarmac was burned away overnight and the Champs Elysées reverted to its faded road markings and cobbled, pot-holed magnificence.

Into the void

So farewell Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the prime minister celebrated for his squashed nose and for his rustic aphorisms or "Raffarinisms". He was (and is) a sweet man, misunderstood by the ungrateful French. He once told me off for not wearing a jumper on a cold day.

Instead, the French have the haughty, handsome diplomat-poet, Dominique de Villepin. For home-spun Raffarinisms, substitute gold-spun Villepinisms.

The new French PM once compared France to a man "marching in silence along a ridge, open to all the winds ... never ceding to fashion or fear ... skirting life close to the void."

"Life close to the void" is a good definition of the career of all French prime ministers.

Bonne chance, Dominique.

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