Is it safe to visit France?

Is it safe?

I frequently see this question posted on forums and social media.  And I hear it from friends and family that would love to travel to France but are spooked by the media coverage of terrorism and cultural clashes.

I’ve been traveling to France for about 4 decades now.  It’s changed, just like the rest of the world.  But it safe to visit France?  In all of my visits, including those within the past 2 years. I’ve never been or felt threatened, nor was I  the victim of a crime or terrorism.   That’s anecdotal, of course.  And I’d be less cavalier if I’d been on the Promenade de Anglais on Bastille Day in 2016, or if I’d lost friends at the Bataclan Theater in Paris in 2015, or if that homme très gentil on the Metro hadn’t handed my wallet back to me when I dropped it, unnoticed, at his feet.

Headlines like “Paris region loses 1.5 million tourists over terror fears”  give the impression that wiser travelers are staying away.  Lots of other headlines draw attention to the successful and thwarted terror attacks that seem to happen with such grim regularity.  The influx of refugees and other immigrants garners lots of press attention, all of it consistent with media’s adherence to the “if it bleeds, it leads” marketing strategy.  These are all newsworthy and deserve our attention for many reasons.  But should we join the 1.5 million would-have-been-visitors-to-Paris and stay home?

The short answer is no, absolutely not.  Fewer tourists make this a great time to visit France.  The long answer is, well, longer.  But as you’ll see, the long answer may be exactly what you’ll need when you tell your timid family members or coworkers why you’re not afraid to book your next trip to France this year.

Weighing the risks

Weighing Risks

All travel involves some risk.  You’re more likely to get sick when you travel.  Just driving to the airport involves risk, since about 1.3 million people die in traffic accidents each year, and another 20 to 50 million are injured in automobile accidents globally.  You may find it troubling to learn that you’re a little more likely to die of poisoning than you are to die in a traffic accident.  You’re just a little less likely to die as a result of a fall, which is the leading cause of death for Americans over the age of 71.  According to NBC News, your risk of dying by choking on your food is higher than the risk that you’ll be killed by a terrorist.

Hopefully, reading this won’t paralyze you with fear.  But the truth is that danger is all around us.  Having a realistic understanding of the dangers we face in our day to day lives keeps us grounded in reality and gives us tools for making big and small decisions, like where to go on our next trip abroad, and when to go there.

“Due to the threat of terrorism, the national security and armed forces are on elevated alert”

This poster started appearing on public buildings in 2016 or so.  It’s not uncommon to see armed soldiers on the streets of Paris and at popular tourist destinations.  They’re a reminder that chaos is out there, kept at bay (mostly) by vigilance and bravery.   And lots of money to pay for the bravery.

Risk in France compared to the U.S.

Nationmaster.com has an easy to read table showing relative rates of various crimes in France and the U.S.  For Americans, the bad news is that you’re far more likely to be murdered in your home country, which has a murder rate of 5 per 100,000 people.  In France, the murder rate per 100,000 people is just 1.31.  If you’d rather not be raped, staying in the U.S. may be a worse option than traveling to France, since America’s rate of rapes per 100,000 is 27.3, about 69% higher than the rate in France, which is 16.2.

Overall, more crimes are committed in France than in the U.S., with France ranked 14th in the world for overall crimes committed.  America is ranked 22nd in this category and underperforms France by 48% (61.0 total crimes per 1,000 in France vs. 41.3 per 1,000 in the U.S.).

Statistically, though, France is considerably safer than the U.S. in terms of violent crimes. And if you’re planning to rent a car during your visit to France, you’ll be pleased to know that France has about half the number of traffic fatalities per 100,000 residents as the U.S. at 5.1 per hundred thousand vs. 10.6 in the U.S.  If you suspect that fewer people drive in France, you’ll be even more pleased to learn that France STILL has lower numbers of traffic fatalities than the U.S. based on the number of CARS on the road, with France sustaining just 7.6 deaths per 100,000 vehicles while the U.S. suffers 12.9 deaths per 100,000 vehicles.

Watch out for things

Things to avoid 

Most sane adults understand that there is no such thing as a perfectly safe country or city.  We all know places in our local areas that are better avoided for one reason or another.  France is no different than any other place where people live.  There are always predators.  Below are some helpful tips to keep you from falling victim to them.

Paris.   Paris is cool.  So cool that over 14 million people visit the city every year.  And since France is the most visited country in the world, with over 85 million visitors annually, Paris is the most visited city in the most visited country on earth.  Naturally, that makes Paris a target of opportunity for hucksters, pickpockets, scammers, and thieves of all sorts.

Don’t let that tidbit change your travel plans, though.  These same parasites operate everywhere there are throngs of people.  You need to avoid them wherever you go, including the City of Lights.

Paris Arrondissements

If you’re planning on booking a stay in a hotel or a rental, and especially if it’s your first time in Paris, concentrate your search on the 1st through the 7th Arrondissements (Districts).

The red line on the map above is the Peripherique, the main traffic artery around the city.  You may find cheaper accommodations outside of it, but the inner Arrondissements are generally safer and certainly much closer to the main attractions.

Places to avoid in Paris.  During daylight and early evening, most of the city is safe.  After dark, here are some important places to avoid:

  • The 16th, especially the Bois du Boulogne (a 2,200-acre forest park) in the late evening.  It’s not that the 16th is altogether seedy (former French President Nicolas Sarkozy lives in a comfortable chateau there), but parts of it are a bit rough.
  • Les Halle – It’s a hangout for teens, homeless, and some unsavory sorts.
  • Saint-Denis – It’s a separate arrondissement on the north side of the City.  It’s not necessarily unsafe, but it’s run down.  Far from the best of Paris.
  • Boulevard de Clichy – it’s on the north side of the 9th, near Montmartre and the Moulin Rouge.  There are lots of strip clubs rumored to be good places to be beaten and robbed.  It’s fine during the day, but the later it gets, the dodgier it gets.
  • Barbes Rochechouart – a major Metro station near the Sacre Coeur, it’s a hangout for hucksters, many of them recent arrivals from distant lands, to sell cigarettes and fake Rolexes.  They’re generally congenial but can get pretty aggressive.  Darkness seems to bring out the worst in them.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but these are pretty well-known areas that locals and seasoned visitors avoid after dark, especially late evenings and early mornings.  There are points of interest near all of them, and millions of people make daylight visits every year.  I’ve taken my wife and young daughters on the Metro and visited most of the places on this list.  We’ve never had even the hint of trouble in daylight, although we’ve seen some interesting characters and encountered somewhat aggressive scammers.

Scams and scammers

Common Scams in Paris  

  • The “Phony Petition” scam. When you’re near the biggest tourist attractions, like Notre Dame and the Louvre, it’s not at all uncommon to be approached by one or two women (usually) with clipboards asking if you will please sign a petition for some worthy cause, like ending child hunger.  If you take the bait, they’ll immediately demand money.  In one variation, the scammers will pretend to be deaf and or mute.  The best defense is to curtly refuse or to just ignore them.
  • The “free” rose. A friendly guy or gal approaches with a bouquet of roses and a smile, offers you (or your female companion) a rose as a token of friendship and love, then demands payment even if you return the rose.  The best defense is to NEVER take anything from a stranger.  Also, it’s almost always best to ignore anyone that approaches you aggressively.
  • The “gold” ring.  A very friendly Roma woman walking near you suddenly exclaims loudly, then reaches down to pick up what appears to be a gold wedding band.  She offers the ring to you, after proclaiming it to be solid gold, and making some stupid excuse about why she can’t or won’t keep it herself.  Those that accept the ring are then cajoled or bullied into paying her a few euros to show gratitude.  Again, the best defense is not to take anything offered to you by strangers.
  • Pickpockets.  In areas with high tourist density, like the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower, a variety of pickpockets ply their trade with great skill.  It is rumored that the very densely packed throngs in the gallery that houses the Mona Lisa is a particular favorite of the best pickpockets, many of whom are children or at least teens (a la Oliver Twist).  They use many tactics, most are a variation of a team of at least two where one distracts while the other robs.  A spilled drink, an inadvertent bump in a crowd, or a “friendly” approach to ask directions are red flags.  The best defense is never to carry a wallet or other valuables in a hip pocket or in a backpack that’s not pickpocket proof.  Keep a copy of your passport in your possession and leave the original in the hotel or rental safe.  If you carry a purse, make it a small one and keep the strap on your shoulder or wrist.
  • The “friendship” bracelet.  This is a pretty vile scam, usually carried out by Africans.  There are variations, but the main theme is an approach by a smiling character, usually a man, who offers you a hand-woven friendship bracelet made of colorful string or yarn.   If you accept, they’ll tie the bracelet so tightly that you can’t easily get it off.  They then begin to badger you for money, and could even try to force you to accompany them to an ATM where they’ll coerce you into making a large withdrawal.  Many if not most of the perpetrators are Africans that give themselves away by walking around with handfuls of colorful handmade bracelets.  This is reportedly common around the Montmartre although I haven’t encountered it there.  Your best defense is to refuse bluntly and to walk away.
  • Street vendors.  They are ubiquitous at the most popular tourist destinations.  You’ll find them (or they’ll find you) hawking everything from light-up plastic Eiffel Towers to flying ornithopters and French flags.    As I mentioned, there are lots of fake fashion-label products like Rolex watches, Ray-Ban sunglasses, and Gucci handbags, especially in the area around Barbes Rochechouart.  Most of this stuff is junk that will fall apart before you get to the airport.  And if you make the mistake of buying one thing, you’ll likely be hounded mercilessly to buy more crap, usually at a discounted price that will make you realize how badly you’ve been had.  Just say no, and say sharply if they don’t take the hint.
  • Counterfeit euro notes.   Counterfeiting euro notes seems to be a growth industry.  Many merchants use scanners to make sure they’re getting the real thing.  But there are some unscrupulous merchants that will try to claim that your notes are counterfeit when they’re actually palming your real currency and returning phonies after claiming that you’ve tried to scam them.  This is not common but at least you’re now aware of it.  If you’re concerned, you can get the Genuine or Counterfeit app for your smartphone that will allow you to scan euros for authenticity.  Cool.
  • Theft of smartphones from sidewalk cafe tables.  When the weather allows it, and even when it doesn’t, Parisians and visitors love to sit at sidewalk cafes to enjoy some of the finest cuisine, coffee, libations, and people watching in the world.  And because we rely on our smartphones for everything from selfies to translating menus, it is a common habit to set them casually on the tables beside us.  Many tourists report that view of their smartphone being the last one they had of it since thieves passing by are known to grab them and disappear into the crowds in the blink of an eye.  I can’t find statistics for smartphone theft in Paris or France, but in the UK, over 2,000 smartphones go missing each day.  The numbers in France are surely comparable.  Beyond cafe tables, some visitors to Paris have reportedly had their phones ripped from their hands while they were using them.  Don’t leave your phone lying on tables, chairs, or benches.  Use it sparingly in public, since once a thief knows you have it, he or she will look for opportunities to take it.  If you can’t afford to lose it, insure your phone for breakage, loss, and theft with a reputable company before you travel.
  • Unsecured public wifi.  There are lots of public wifi hotspots in Paris, and France in general.  Many are free, some are for hotel and restaurant guests.

In general, you can avoid scammers by paying attention to the people around you.  It’s usually easy to tell when you’ve been singled out.  A stranger who focuses their attention on you and starts moving in your direction probably doesn’t just want to be your friend.  When you see them coming, move away.

I can nearly always discourage them with a scowl and a headshake or a firm “No.”  The biggest deterrent is body language that declares “NO, I’m NOT interested.”

The Paris Prefecture of police makes sure there’s a large contingent of gendarmes throughout the city.  They have a number of public contact points, including 20 police stations in more or less convenient locations.  You can call them at 17 or through the EU emergency number at 112.  They’ve provided an English pamphlet with advice for visitors to Paris that worth reading here.

Finally

If you’re a Francophile, or you think you might like to become one, fears of terrorism or violent crime should not deter you from completing your French travel plans.  France is a first world country with excellent healthcare, great infrastructure, a very efficient and professional police and security apparatus, and some of the best restaurants in the world.

If you pay attention to what’s going on in the world, you know that the human race has some problems.  Terrorism, mass shootings, road rage, etc. are not uncommon.  And yet we have plenty of reason for optimism.  In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Dr. Steven Pinker points out that however bad you think things are now, they have been much worse in the past.  And even though there are more people alive today than at any time in history, we’re finding better ways to get along with each other.

 

Danger everywhere

Is it safe to visit France?   In a very real sense, it’s not safe to stay home.  After all, nearly 18,000 Americans die each year from accidents that take place in our homes, while an average of only 827 Americans die abroad annually.

 

But then, most of us don’t travel because it makes us safer, we travel because it broadens our minds, enriches our hearts, and satisfies our yearning to see and experience the world in new and different ways.  It makes us alive in ways that we relish.  It deepens our appreciation for beauty.   It exposes us to new ideas and lifestyles and cultures.  And for the Francophile, travel to France epitomizes all that’s good about travel.

As one wise traveler puts it, “Adventure may hurt you, but monotony will kill you.”   So stop fretting, book your flights, map out your itinerary, and reserve your rooms now.  Then drop me a note, and I’ll meet you in Paris for a café au lait or a verre de vin rouge. 

 

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