PARIS, France—My first afternoon in Paris, I explored the area around my residence. I found bakeries on most every block, lots of little fruit stands and convenience stores, and a handful of little cafes. Walking back, I passed a blue and white truck that looked sort of like a horse trailer, with long, thin window slits near the top. But the windows had bars on the inside, and there were dozens of men’s faces squashed against them looking out at me and shouting—prisoners being moved somewhere. The truck is sandwiched between two police cars and flanked by two policemen on motorcycles.
A couple days later I was taking the train back from the center of Paris. Already past midnight, there’s just me, a friend of mine, an American mother and daughter, and a single young black man in our car. Before we leave the station three burly men dressed in all black board the train from behind us. Their leader is short with a blond buzz cut. They look like special forces agents or something, but the Société Nationale des Chemins de fer français, France’s railway company, inscription on the back of their shirts identifies them as transit police. They cross the car and wrestle the man out of his seat. The short blond one spins him around, handcuffs him, and they drag him off the train.
There are police and law enforcement everywhere here. Mostly they don’t do much; they just stand on street corners or walk menacingly through crowded areas. Some are dressed in camouflage with red berets and carry large guns; others are dressed in dark, navy blue with matching sailor-style caps. One of my friends saw them arrest a serial shoplifter in a grocery store, and I heard one of them whistle harshly at some kids in a park. I think they were feeding the ducks or something, which is illegal. I’ve never been anywhere in America with such a constant police presence. The effect is both somewhat reassuring and rather sinister.