POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Apr 7, 2014
PARIS » Since the reign of France's Sun King, the historic Place Vendtme has served as this city's capital of luxury, home to high-end fashion boutiques and diamond shops, Coco Chanel's mansion, and the palatial Httel Ritz Paris. Lately, though, this quarter snug in the heart of Paris has turned into the hub of a decidedly more low-rent form of plunder: smash-and-grab robberies.
Common crime is an indiscreet topic among merchants in the Vendtme quarter of stone streets and graceful arcades. But many are clearly jittery from a wave of daytime robberies - three in the last three weeks - that have targeted ostentatious wealth in an otherwise weak economy, provoking more satire than sympathy.
The culprits have mostly hit jewelry stores, and on Friday the police arrested two men in connection with one of the thefts who were tripped up by DNA left at the scene and by the ubiquitous video surveillance cameras.
The latest break-in, on March 22 by masked robbers armed with a pump-action gun and an ax, struck the city's temple of hip, Colette. The eclectic three-story shop ordinarily attracts the likes of Kate Moss, Jay Z and Kanye West with its mix of limited-edition clothing, books, dishes, jewelry and a water bar where sparkling water is pricier than wine.
But shortly before the store opened in the morning, two thieves stormed the entrance and barked orders at seven employees, according to the police. The robbers smashed a display case of watches on the first floor, and then fled within minutes on a motorcycle with more than 600,000 euros, or about $822,000, in deluxe watches.
"They didn't want to steal clothes," said Colette Roussaux, the owner. "They came for the opportunity and the beautiful watches here. And we don't sell Swatches."
With its high-fashion profile, the Colette caper quickly provoked black humor about the low concept of fashion crime. A satirical French television show, "Le Petit Journal," re-enacted the robbery with air-kissing thieves in mustaches. Leafing through their wardrobe, they bickered over mix-and-match accessories. What to wear to a heist? Louis Vuitton gloves? A Jacquemus ax?
In one frantic day, a group of ambitious students created a website selling T-shirts emblazoned with "I Robbed Colette." Twitter users scoffed, too, remarking that 600,000 euros at the pricey store equaled two white T-shirts and a pair of shoes.
But it was no laughing matter in the Vendtme quarter, where many store employees and the local merchant group, the Vendtme committee, said they preferred not to comment.
Since the latest robbery, the police have stepped up their presence in the commercial area, increasing foot patrols, said Xavier Castaing, a police spokesman. Castaing said robberies in Paris were down overall, a trend led by banks that have reduced their cash on hand and adopted new security measures. Now, he added, the police are working with merchants to improve security in the Vendtme district, which is already covered by extensive surveillance cameras that have helped crack earlier robberies.
In the Friday arrests, that was the case again. The police said that both men, ages 56 and 63, had extensive criminal records, and that one had recently been released after serving time in prison for jewelry store robberies in 2005 and 2009. In one instance, he sported a Borsalino hat; in the recent robbery, the police said, the look was more classic: a mask and a handgun.
Typically, the private security men in suits who are now ubiquitous outside the jewelry stores are forbidden to bear arms. But in the south of France, some owners of small jewelry stores have shot and killed fleeing robbers, provoking soul-searching debates about how to prosecute them.
Among the more exotic security alternatives under discussion is a special powder or fluid that is invisible to the eye and can be sprayed on valuable items. If a thief touches a sprayed object, the fluid leaves a DNA trace that can be read over a period of six weeks with an ultraviolet light. But the approach still has not been accepted as legal evidence.
Jacques Morel, a security adviser to the French association of jewelers, said that stolen jewelry lost 80 percent of its value when resold, but that there was a thriving trade between wealthy buyers from Eastern Europe and thieves from that region. The number of attacks on jewelers fell last year, he added, but what has changed is the audacity of foreign thieves coming to Paris, who create high drama by barging in and out in three minutes.
"They are using new techniques of smash and grab, using weapons to smash glass," he said, adding that the thieves sometimes strike in large numbers. "Passive security doesn't work effectively, so there is reflection now among law enforcement about how to improve."
In October, about 15 men demonstrated such brute force, attacking the jewelry store Vacheron Constantin, near the Place Vendtme, with axes. They snatched 20 watches and streamed away on foot, an odd scene that a witness captured in a shaky video.
Some suspects, who were Romanian, were captured by the police on the same day. Others were picked up a few months later in a second heist turned slapstick.
In January, eight men from Romania were arrested on the Champs-Ilysies after they attacked a door of a jewelry store with sledgehammers and axes. In a form of poetic street justice, they were trapped in a space as they tried unsuccessfully to force their way through a second door.
In such cases, it is difficult to resist the comic possibilities of crime. After Colette was robbed, a group of university students of technology, business and marketing decided to exploit the headlines.
David, 20, who declined to disclose his last name to "remain discreet," dreamed up the "I Robbed Colette" T-shirts with four friends. They sold about 1,000 over two days and then closed up shop. Spring exams beckoned.
"We did it to be creative and funny and to have a good time doing it," David said. "Colette is so expensive. Every time we run past it, we see those Chanel backpacks for about 2,500 euros. That was the aim of the project - to react to people wanting to buy so much stuff there. It's so expensive."
In contrast to Colette's 135-euro ($185) designer Kenzo T-shirts - "No Fish. No Nothing" - the student collection was itself a steal: 25 euros, or about $34.
Doreen Carvajal, New York Times