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Staying Safe in France

There’s no sugar-coating it: Crime is on the rise in France. Still, it isn’t very likely you’ll become a crime statistic if you live here. Strict gun-control laws do mean that you’re more likely to get stabbed than shot, but the odds of either one are infinitesimally small. If you are the victim of a crime in France, it’ll most likely be a pickpocketing or other petty theft. In Paris, Métro line 1 is notorious for pickpockets, who hunt for distracted tourists on their way to the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay, and the Champs-Élysées.

Also growing in popularity among thieves previously resigned to wallets is smartphone theft, with iPhones being of particular interest. A recent spate of phone thefts in train stations and on the streets—generally the purloined items are snatched directly from the hands of their rightful owners—warrants extra care with your electronic doodads. Also be aware that when you’re traveling by car, your license plate gives away your nonlocal status, and visitors in rental cars have reported break-ins at popular tourist sites. The key is not to leave anything of value in your car, and be sure to keep all the doors locked when you’re driving.

CCTV cameras adorn an iron stand in France.
There are over 900,000 CCTV cameras throughout France to help curb crime. Photo © Gilles Paire/123rf.

One technique being employed to curb crime in public areas is the closed-circuit TV camera. A public surveillance system already in place expanded in 2013, when more than 1,000 new cameras were installed throughout the public streets of Paris, adding to the 935,000 cameras already in place throughout the rest of the country. If it feels like a futuristic police state, that’s probably not too far off—but this system has proved effective in apprehending thieves in the Métro and otherwise identifying criminals in public places. In 2013, in the distant Paris suburb of Montereau-Fault-Yonne, closed-circuit cameras are being used to capture “criminals” of another stripe: locals who fail to do their civic duty and pick up after their dogs. A recent nationwide survey indicates that 75 percent of French citizens approve of public surveillance cameras.


French police can help with matters as varied as finding a lost animal to giving you directions to helping you when your pocket is picked on the Paris Métro. There are several different types of police: police nationale, those legions of men and women who keep order and protect the public in metropolitan areas throughout France; gendarmes, who keep the peace in rural areas, provide military security, and stroll the welcome halls at airports; police de la circulation, who’ll ticket you for breaking one of the rules of the road and issue you those pesky parking citations; and douanes, who enforce the law when it comes to customs and taxes.

For basic issues, either go to the local commissariat of police in your arrondissement or town, or dial emergency number 17—it’s the same throughout France—to speak with a law-enforcement agent equipped to help you. Note that French is the common language spoken, so be prepared to try and stumble through; if you get a nice person on the other end of the line, she may meet you halfway with some English.


France is fully equipped to handle any emergency you may face, but you need to know where to call to get the care that you need. The fire department, or Sapeurs-Pompiers, is the go-to agency for most emergencies. The staff act as intermediaries to determine whether they should come to your aid themselves or send the police or a more urgent medical service. If they determine that you need a doctor at home right away, they’ll direct you to SOS Médecins (or you can call them directly—in Paris, dial 01/47 07 77 77), who’ll be at your home in less than an hour. Or they might send Urgences Médicales, who’ll pay you a visit within 12 hours (tel. 01/53 94 94 94).

Several times each year, cards with all the municipal emergency numbers are distributed to homes and apartments throughout France. Ask the gardien(ne) of your building for a card or request one at your local mairie if one hasn’t been slipped under your front door in a while.

The most common numbers you’ll need in an emergency are:
15 – Ambulance (Service d’Aide Médicale d’Urgence/SAMU)
17 – Police (Police/Gendarmes)
18 – Fire (Sapeurs-Pompiers)

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