25 January 2010

Crime and Punishment, St. Barths Style

Despite the best efforts of Winair, our losing the car keys, the failure of the irrigation system, assorted plumbing issues, and then struggling with a computer system that required multiple tech visits involving serial component replacements, our return to Paradise was manageable. Worth every bit of agita.

Weather is same old, same old, beaches as gorgeous as ever, everybody is smiling, the Carib is warm and inviting, etc, etc, so I need to look elsewhere for new information about Paradise for which my vast readership hungers.

Hence the title of this piece.

By New York City standards, Paradise is way under-policed. That North American city has one policeman for every 40 residents, and this island has one for every 400.

Surprise, surprise, the criminal justice system here is quite different from the one currently prevailing in Un-paradise. There are two law enforcement agencies on this island. The "Police" are hired and paid for by the Collectivitie (the island government). They carry guns, wear combat boots, but their only responsibility is traffic and parking. They do not work on weekends, to my knowledge. Given their limited role, I am not sure why they carry guns in Paradise. Parking is a major issue in downtown Gustavia but as far as I know, unlike New York, nobody here has yet been shot over a parking space.

The heavy-duty policing is the responsibility of the National Government in France. There are 21 Gendarmes on duty here. They are part of the French military and are theoretically on duty 24/7/365. In other words, the French Army has at least one thing in common with the U.S. military: no overtime pay when the shit hits the fan. The Gendarmes' responsibilities cover the extremes of the French Criminal Code, from seatbelt violations to murder, and everything in between. They are also now responsible for stamping your passport at the airport when and if Winair is having a good day.


At a meeting of foreign (read "American") property owners, the Commandant of the Gendarmes garrison here told us that compared to the mainland and other French islands, St. Barths is over-Gendarmed by a factor of about three. Pourquoi? I dunno. Neither does the Commandant.

Ahh, the French government: they are eager to encourage tourists to bring in dollars, but they are adamantly French in the manner they go about it. As a result, the Le General in Paris has consistently assigned to duty here those Gendarmes who speak only French! The only English speaking Gendarme is the Commandant. He explains that when an English speaking person (about half the population in the winter) needs to communicate with his guys, they need to go to him, or if he is not available, to his wife, who is Scottish. No wonder there are so few traffic stops.

Happily, the Gendarmes are not overworked. Last year there were seven breaking and entering burglaries. All were solved, all stolen property returned. There appears to be a noticeable lack of professionalism among the island crooks. One pair of geniuses stole a pocketbook containing cash, credit cards, etc. The victims immediately reported the theft to the Gendarmes and canceled their credit cards. Two hours later the thieves were nabbed trying to pay for lunch in Gustavia with one of the stolen cards. Duh. Interestingly, the two thieves were not sentenced to jail time. I am not certain, but I believe their sentence consisted of a requirement they move to St. Martin.

We also received a report on accidents--those that must by law be reported to the Gendarmes. Astonishingly, on this island of paved narrow mule paths populated by too-fat cars and daredevil scooter and motorcycle nuts, there were only 24 reported accidents last year. That low number is somewhat explained by the French definition of "accident." Fender benders, no matter how serious, are not "accidents" unless somebody is injured. And, the Commandant explained, when the ambulance takes you to the hospital, and the hospital discharges you a couple of hours later, that does not count as an injury; you gotta at least "break a bone or something." As anyone who has traveled the roads here would expect, the great majority (18) of the 24 accidents involved scooters and motorcycles.

Lawyers would be interested in the criminal investigation process. We are told the greatest incidence of criminal behavior here is the sale and possession of drugs, which apparently occurs principally in the nightclubs. Recreational drugs in nightclubs? I am shocked, shocked. But as I understand it, the Gendarmes cannot go into the clubs to investigate without special authority from the prosecutor who lives and works in St. Martin, and who issues no more than one such "warrant" (my word, not his) a week, and the scope of the warrant is usually limited to a period of two hours. That's it. The Gendarmes also have a drug-sniffing dog, but without a warrant, the pup is allowed to work only on the dock at the port and on the tarmac at the airport. (This is the Gendarmes' second dog, the first was a German Shepherd who died on the second day on the job. Boredom will do that.) The current dog is apparently a small mixed breed that I have never seen. Never.

There is no universal emergency number to call for help. In fact, there remains great confusion on that subject. Want the St. Barths Gendarmerie during the day? Dial 17 and the phone will be answered immediately--by somebody on the Island of St. Martin! Maybe an English speaker, maybe not, especially if it is lunch hour. (Noon to three, it is said. Happily, I have no personal knowledge.) I think there are different numbers to call on weekends, evenings, holidays, etc. I'm not sure. Dial 18 if you want the ambulance, but again, the phone rings in St. Martin, not here, and the guy there knows nothing of St. Barths roads, addresses, (there are no house numbers here, the mail is delivered by a guy who knows where everyone lives), etc. The Director of the hospital here advises people never to use the official two-digit number, but to call the ten digit local number of the hospital directly, or the call the Fire Department guys who run the ambulance service. How will they find your house? I dunno. Maybe they ask the mailman, if they can find him. The mailman is a busy guy. I often see his empty vehicle parked at the roadside during the work day. I told Pinks that I think there may a lot of kids on this island who resemble him, but it would be wrong to speculate.

Back to parking for a minute. On the main drag in Gustavia, we now have a parking meter system sans parking meters. Here's how it works: Local government offices (Police station, Treasury office, Town Hall, etc) have a supply of blue disks that are distributed free. It is a simple cardboard wheel setting out the hours of the clock. Set it for the time you park, leave it visible on your dashboard, and you are good for 1.5 hours after the time displayed on the wheel. Park without a disk, or overstay your limit, you risk an 11 euro parking ticket.

As part of my first week basic training this year, I earned a parking ticket for having no disk. So began this year's first encounter with the French bureaucracy.

The next morning, I go to the Collectivitie Tresorier, located in a small building one block up from the waterfront. I ask for a blue disk. The polite lady speaking passable English says, "I am sorry, Monsieur, but we are out of them. You must go to the Police Office, I think they have more."

I am an officer of the court, a military veteran, and a husband, and am trained to obey orders: I walk the two blocks to the Police Station where a uniformed Officer gives me a disk. I offer to pay my eleven euro fine. "Non, Monsieur," he says, "only le Treasorier can accept money." Back to le Treasorier, where I lay my ticket and coins on the counter. The nice lady accepts my money, then pulls out a loose leaf book full of transparent plastic sleeves containing pages of different color postage-like stamps. She chooses two orange stamps, pastes one on the carbon copy of my ticket, and the other on a form generated by a computer, and then overlays each of them with an official rubber ink-stamp. She gives me the computer copy and the now-stamped carbon copy of my parking ticket and I ask her if I am now all paid up and free to go. "Non, Monsieur," she says with a kind smile reserved for addressing third graders, "You must now go to le Police Office and submit to them the copy of le ticket with the official stamped revenue stamp."

I obey again. Hey, the shuttling back and forth is exercise, both buildings are on the sunny side of the street and therefore good for my suntan, and besides, what else would I write about? I walk back to the Police station, give the stamped copy of le ticket to the Police officer, and I am free at last, non?

Welll, actually non. When we get back from the beach that afternoon, there is my nice Tresorier lady on the answering machine. This time her voice has a different quality; the condescension is replaced by a tone of anxious submission. Would I be so kind as to please return to le Treasurier with my documents as soon as possible? She says it is "tres importante" that I do so. But it is 4 P.M., and I sense that the economic collapse of the Collectivitie of St. Barths will not result from my failure promptly to attend the summons. I am sure this is important, but not so important as to interfere with my post-beach gin and tonic. The emergency will have to wait till the morning.

When I return from my walk up the mountain the next morning, there is yet another urgent message on my machine. Same caller, same message. She is hurting. What's going on? Is Bernanke involved? They need my help? I shower and rush down with my copy of my twice-stamped document. When I get to le Tresorier I find a line of five or six people waiting for the attention of the Tresorier lady, and I decide to come back later. As I turn to depart, she spies me and calls out, "Monsieur, Monsieur London, YOU do not need to wait. Please!", and she beckons me to the front of the line. That went over real well with les personnes in front of me, but when there is a fiscal crisis, and you are THE MAN, you get the perks. Period.

Bottom line: yesterday she used the wrong color stamp. The orange one she pasted on my ticket was a 22 euro stamp. She should have applied the green eleven euro stamp. If I had not come in, her books would not have balanced, the island would have dipped into deficit spending, the local espresso-party activists would have trounced the current administration in the next election, and the island's health care plan would be trashed. Yikes. Where would this island be without me?

A bientot.

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home