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Je fais témoin

When I returned to Paris from the World Social Forum in Brazil on Feb 6, police were checking the passports of everyone getting off the plane. There were around six policemen there. As a frequent traveller to Paris, I know this is not a normal thing.

When it was my turn to be checked, I asked "What's going on? What are you checking for?" The policeman gave an evasive answer, "This is a police control", which was actually a non-answer. I said, "This is not normal. Why here?" He responded with another non-answer.

He saw nothing wrong with my passport, so I moved on about ten feet and watched what was happening. Sometimes the police looked very carefully at a passport with a magnifying glass; perhaps they were looking for someone with a false passport. They seemed to be detaining three people. I thought of shouting to them asking if they wanted to give me their names to publish, but I do not speak Portuguese and had no confidence we could communicate in any other language. So I just stood there watching.

When all the passengers had come out and all but those three had moved on, a policeman asked me what I was doing. I said, "I am being a witness" (je fais témoin). He did not seem to react. Maybe 20 seconds later another policeman asked the same question and accepted the same answer. Just a few seconds later, another one walked up to me, standing obnoxiously close, and told me "The exit is that way." He repeated things like that a few times, getting louder each time, and then said I should "continue on my way." He also said, "Did anyone ask you to do anything?" but he did not let me respond. The emotion of the moment impeded my ability to express myself in French.

When he stopped shouting at me and I regained my faculty of speech, I said, again, that I was a witness. He shouted, "Pas de témoins (no witnesses), pas de témoins!"

Then he said, "The French police don't work like the Brazilian police." I said that I was not a Brazilian in any case. He looked at my passport again and said, "If a US policeman asked you to do something, would you do it?" he asked me. I said, "Maybe yes, maybe no."

Then he began shouting at me again to go away. He also shouted "Nobody asked you to do anything", which was manifestly untrue since he had done so. I was looking at his badge, trying to see a badge number, but I could not tell which of the various numbers and names on the badge was it. Not wanting to be arrested, I decided at this point to offer to leave if he told me his name. He said he was Dupont, Michel. I'm told this is the French equivalent of "John Smith", which almost surely means he was (a) lying and (b) refusing to identify himself.

When police say "No witnesses", one must suspect they are up to some kind of dirty work that they don't want to admit to the public. When they make a practice of lying, one must wonder: is there any moral obligation to tell them the truth?

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