I had my first proper brush with the law last week and it’s not an episode I’d care to repeat. I had heard stories of mean, vindictive cops roaming the streets joyfully spot-fining ordinary folk for minor misdemeanours – but had not actually seen it with my own eyes, let alone been on the receiving end of it.
French cops, or agents de police to use the correct term, are nothing like your friendly neighbourhood bobbies of yore. The raison d’etre of a French policeman is to strike fear into all those around – rightly or wrongly – to act as a deterrent to potential law breakers in the vicinity. Kitted out in blue military fatigues and carrying lethal hardware they strike an imposing figure of invincibility wherever they appear. While the law-abiding public might appreciate the work they do – few would approach an agent to ask for anything as trivial as directions for fear of being accused of wasting police time.
I did once ask a cop for directions following a road closure, due to a security cordon raised around City Hall Broglie where M. le President was spending a few minutes, to which he replied simply “I don’t know, I’m not from around here.” Helpful, not.
On the day in question I will admit to being in a bit of a hurry, as I was expected at a Doctoral Conference some minutes after the usual bicycle school run. Elsewhere in Strasbourg that day the European Parliament was sitting to listen to the day’s guest speaker, Monsieur le President Macron, students were blockading the university campus and the rail workers were demonstrating outside the station. All in all you could say it was a bit of a busy day as far as policing goes. Even so, clearly not every law enforcement official in town felt they had enough to do, for as I pulled up to the busy crossroads at Gallia/Pont Royal…
Red lights are for everyone, sir. You’re supposed to stop.
…said the motorcycle cop as he negotiated his way around me on his machine, having run through the red light I was stopped at. Things should have ended there but as he began to exit the scene I, stupidly, protested my innocence, pointing to the red light in front of me:
But the light’s red! I’ve stopped.
I know, bold of me huh? This protestation was enough to enrage said copper to pull me aside and issue me with a spot fine of 38€. I did as I was told of course, but not being au fait with civilian-copper protocol I continued to protest my innocence. This insolence on my part resulted in Monsieur l’agent immediately increasing the fine to 150€.
Seeing as I was going to have to shell out such an amount I decided to ask for clarity as to what he thought he saw me do. Essentially he was accusing me of going through a red road light – when in actual fact I had crossed on a green pedestrian light across the road in question, I had then turned in line with the road to wait for the next pedestrian light across the junction. The cycle path on one side was in the middle of the boulevard – so I had to cross using the pedestrian crossing. The fact that I had stopped on the road and hindered his motorcycle as it went through red was what he was complaining about. I had stopped “too far forward on the junction” apparently – which didn’t exactly sound like the crime of the century. It was then that he got a call from someone – clearly asking where the hell he was.
Finishing his call, and perhaps becoming aware that paperwork reading “stopped a bit too far forward at a junction” might not stand up to much legal scrutiny, he decided to pull the plug on our encounter.
Do you live in Strasbourg?
Next time I see you, you’re paying a 150€ fine.
And with that he left in a cloud of motorbike fumes.
He hasn’t tracked me down as yet and I’m hoping he never will.