I wasn’t planning on posting this at all, but it suddenly seemed pertinent in view of the outrage regarding police misconduct towards women during last Saturday’s vigil on London’s Clapham Common. Below is a short excerpt from my memoir recounting a late-night incident during which my French girlfriend and I were literally picked up off our feet from the sidewalk and deposited in a police van one night in Paris. Every word of this is true. It occurred in the 1990s.
Prior to coming to France, I had never seen the inside of a police van. But in Paris and within the space of three months I found myself not once, but twice in a paddy wagon.
It was two a.m. when Véronique and I left the discothèque in the sixth arrondissement and decided to walk home. We could have taken a taxi, but the warm air, the river Seine glinting in the moonlight and the sheer beauty of the city conspired to keep us outdoors.
“Let’s walk home.” I said.
“Yes, let’s!” said Véronique.
We began to cross one of the bridges that links the right bank with the left. Deep in conversation, we didn’t notice the police van gliding stealthily alongside us.
“Bonsoir, mesdemoiselles,” We glanced to our left. A cop, one of two in the cab of the van, was leaning nonchalantly out of the open window; too nonchalantly, I remember thinking. A cigarette hung from his lip and his head was bare.
“Bonsoir.” we replied curtly, and continued walking.
“What are two pretty girls like yourselves doing out at this hour?” the cop said. His voice was smarmy.
“Just walking home.” Véro said.
“It’s unsafe at this late hour,” he persisted, “Wouldn’t you rather be driven home?”
“No, thank you.” we said, and continued walking.
And then suddenly all hell broke loose. With a loud metallic clang, the side door of the vehicle slid open and half a dozen policemen leapt out. As they sprinted towards us, Véronique and I stood frozen to the pavement, open-mouthed with shock. Within seconds we were encircled, and faster than you can say ‘police misconduct’, we were literally scooped up and lifted off our feet – me in the arms of one cop, Véro in the arms of another – and carried back to the van. We protested all the way, legs and arms flailing, screaming to be let free. Once in the van, our captors placed us on a wooden bench while the others climbed back in. Then the door slid shut with a final clang, and off we drove into the inky night.
It took a few seconds for my eyes to adjust to the dimness of the van’s interior. The smell of male sweat and those Gauloises cigarettes filled my nostrils. The odor was pungent, acrid, overpowering. Stiff with rage, I eyed the ring of faces around me. “Ça y est,” was my first thought. This is it. They’re going to gang-rape us, either right here in this van or in an isolated area.
Were they off-duty? On-duty? Where were they taking us? My mind raced as fast as my heart as I tried to decode and make sense of this surreal situation. A minute ago I had been walking across a bridge, free and happy as a lark. And safe. I didn’t feel safe now.
I was in a foreign country with foreign customs. Best sit quietly in my corner and observe. I’d use Véronique’s reaction as a gauge: if she wasn’t displaying signs of fear, then I assumed we were safe. But wait. Were they snickering? What was so damned funny? And then I heard something else: Véronique was snickering with them. What the hell was going on? What was this? Some pervy nocturnal ritual in which French cops routinely drive around the city plucking women off the streets only to sequester them in their vans? This so-called abduction, or whatever it was, was manifestly fueling Véronique’s lusty love of attention, lusty love of men and, I was certain, her lust-filled fantasies. It’s true that the men were young and lean and good-looking; even in the dark you could see the contours of their muscular bodies under their snug uniforms. But they were cops, French cops, and I’m no fan of authority figures. And how dare they take such liberties with us … with me! Who did they think they were??
As we sped through the streets I sat glowering in the corner, arms crossed defensively across my chest. I watched, we all watched, as Véro, now in a state of high excitement and wedged between three cops on the wooden bench, shrieked with laughter, showed off her legs to maximum effect and tried on someone’s cap. I groaned inwardly. The trollop! Why didn’t she just sit on their knees, one by one, and perform a lap-dance?
“Nous allons où exactement?” I said loudly, in an attempt to steer matters towards a clear and sensible course of action. Where are we going exactly? No one answered. And then a minute later one of the cops, cocking his head in my direction, said to Véronique in a surprisingly familiar tone, as if they were long lost friends, “Qu’est-ce qu’elle a votre amie?” What’s wrong with your friend? He seemed surprised that I wasn’t enjoying myself. Oh, I’m sorry, I felt like saying, was I expected to provide entertainment?
“Elle est canadienne,” Véro replied between squeals of laughter. (She’s Canadian.)
A silence ensued while the men reflected on this, and then one of them spoke. “Are all Canadians coincés?” Coincé means uptight.
“Je ne suis pas coincée!” I hollered from my corner, “Je suis scandalisée!” I’m not uptight, I’m scandalized! The rest I said in English – How dare you physically pick me up from the sidewalk and hold me hostage in this van! There’s no law against walking home at 2 a.m. This is a violation of my civil liberties, and when I get out of here there’ll be hell to pay!
No one understood a word I said. Six heads turned to Véro for translation, but she couldn’t be bothered. “Elle est vexée,” is all she said. “Vexed??” I continued to rail. “I’m so angry I could spit!”
There was no question as to who to drop off first. The van pulled up to number 6 rue Cadet (Véro had given them my address) and here’s what one of the cops said to me, within earshot of everyone else: “You can get out, but only on condition that you kiss each of us before leaving.”
The sound of my shocked intake of breath was audible. I stared at him, my outraged eyes blazing in the dark. I was beyond livid. I stood up and commanded them to open the door: OUVREZ CETTE PORTE IMMEDIATEMENT! OPEN THIS DOOR IMMEDIATELY!
Or what?, squeaked a small voice in my head. You’ll call the police?
For a fraction of a second there was silence, and then someone opened the door. The clanging seemed to go on forever as I stepped over legs and extricated myself from that lawless lair. Jumping down to safety onto the sidewalk, I turned and looked back at them, an array of raw emotions etched on my face: insolence, defiance, rebelliousness. From the van’s interior seven pairs of eyes were fixed on me as I hissed my final riposte: I’d rather die than kiss any of you!
They cackled like crows. What? What? What did she say? I heard Véronique translating, loud and clear: Elle préférerait mourir plutôt que de vous embrasser.
Loyal to my friend despite her sluttishness, I spoke to her as I would a wayward child. “Véronique, are you coming?” My voice was stern.
“No,” she tittered. She was still sitting on the bench, cops on either side of her. “I think I’m in good hands. They’ll drive me home.”
I snorted. Good hands indeed. Ha! I thought of the bargained kiss and how, alone in that van with six testosterone-fueled men, she was going to negotiate the transaction. I didn’t want to know. Exasperated, I turned on my heel and walked towards my building. As I did so, a chorus of farewells chimed behind me. “Bonne nuit, mademoiselle! Dormez bien!” Good night, sleep well! Of course, I neither turned nor replied. I reached the big front door, yanked it open and, stepping over the sill, disappeared into the dark.
That weekend I recounted the incident to my mother over the telephone. She listened in shocked silence right to the end. And then she said, “Don’t ever tell that story to your father.”
In which a physical assault breaks out on the metro and its back to the paddy wagon