Saturday, May 06, 2006


When I moved to France from Scotland and started commuting into Paris each day, I immediately noticed something about my fellow passengers. They were very drab.

Almost everyone seemed to wear grey or black or brown. It was a rare event to see a colourful jacket: a red anorak occasionally, but that was generally as outrageous as it got. In Paris, supposed capital of fashion, it seemed very surprising.

It struck me as rather shocking that such a large mass of people, and we are talking thousands and thousands at the La Defense metro station, should be so unadventurous, so conformist.

These people, in their drab clothes, matched the metro stations themselves, which were covered in brown tiles or paved in grey concrete. It was as if they had dressed to blend in, to be like their environment.

Then, about six months ago, I started encountering a new group of people not seen before. These people did not blend in at all. In fact they stood out.

And what is curious is that their clothes had been specifically designed to blend in. They were grey and brown in colour and mottled so as to become less visible when the wearer is amongst vegetation. They were, of course, soldiers.

They patrol in groups of three up and down the corridors of the sprawling human delivery system that is the La Defense metro. Passages and stairs go off in every direction and feed people into the huge office complexes all around. The soldiers carry machine guns at the ready, and, what I think their camouflage uniforms are intended to tell us is: they're prepared for action.

Action? In the metro? Amongst all these drab commuters? Presumably that would be warfare against terrorists then. A man carrying a bomb in a bag, something like that. A man in a drab suit, probably. Someone who doesn't stand out at all.

Are these soldiers really going to protect us from someone like that? I don't think so. If they really intended to stop the terrorists, they would camouflage themselves properly, wouldn't they? Not stand out like sore thumbs. A terrorist could spot these guys in their fancy dress from a mile off.

In fact, the actual statement these soldiers make is something quite different. It says: you drab commuters are threatened and we are here to protect you. And that is all they say, and they say it by their uniforms.

The commuters, for their part say: we do not want to stand out like you. We want to blend into our environment. Every one of us looks to you like a potential threat.

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