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How a gang of pickpockets shut down the Louvre
French museum workers walk out as the home to the Mona Lisa is plagued by increasingly aggressive thieves
 
Young pickpocketers are targeting the museum's English-speaking tourists.
Young pickpocketers are targeting the museum's English-speaking tourists. CHARLES PLATIAU/Reuters/Corbis

Employees at the Louvre agreed to return to work on Thursday after a one-day walkout, but only when their bosses said they'd tighten security to crack down on increasingly aggressive gangs of pickpockets at the famous Paris art museum. The strike left crowds of disappointed tourists waiting for hours outside the Louvre, home to such masterpieces as the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo. About 200 of the 450 staff members it takes to run the museum participated in the walkout, and 100 of them picketed in front of the Ministry of Culture demanding that the government tackle the problem. So what's all the ruckus about?

Why are the gangs so threatening? Museum workers say the pickpockets cruise the Louvre in groups of up to 30. They're usually minors, so they can get into the Louvre any time, as admission is free for visitors under 18. English-speaking tourists complain that the thieves, many of whom are immigrants from Eastern Europe, target them, asking, "Do you speak English?" or giving them an English postcard to sign or read. While the person is distracted, more of the thieves show up, grabbing the victim's wallet or other valuables and then quickly walking away.

And the danger is increasing: Museum employees have increased their pleas for help as the pickpockets grow more aggressive. Workers say the kids spit at them, insult them, threaten them, and even attack them when spotted. "The children are tough and very well organized," one member of the staff tells Britain's Telegraph. "We can only do so much, but arrests are usually impossible because of their young age. If they are kicked out, they return the next day. They are very aggressive towards staff, putting people in danger of attack."

This isn't exactly a new problem, though: "There are always pickpockets at the Louvre and other tourist hot spots in central Paris, but for a year and a half they have been more and more violent... and their way of working is well organized," Sophie Aguirre, a member of the museum workers' union, tells Britain's Guardian. The union last year lodged a formal complaint with the state prosecutor saying that the thieves are targeting both visitors and staff members in the vast galleries.

How are authorities addressing the problem? After the employees filed their complaint to prosecutors last year, the museum stepped up cooperation with police and began barring anyone already identified as a pickpocket from entering the museum. Now authorities have agreed to increase police presence at and around the Louvre. The stakes are high for the city. The Louvre is the world's most heavily visited museum, with nearly 10 million visitors each year. At this time of year, 30,000 people arrive each day, and their impressions can have a direct impact on the city's image among tourists, an important source of income for the French capital. And the widely publicized Louvre walkout comes as the city is still recovering from another recent blow to its reputation, when thieves attacked a tour guide and stole passports and a large amount of cash from a group of 23 Chinese tourists who had just arrived in the country.

 
Harold Maass is a contributing editor at TheWeek.com. He has been writing for The Week since the 2001 launch of the U.S. print edition. Harold has worked for a variety of news outlets, including The Miami HeraldFox News, and ABC News.

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