Not long ago on a bus in Montreuil, an unfashionable suburb of Paris, I noticed that I was the only person of perhaps fifty or sixty who got on the bus while I travelled on it who actually paid. I felt slightly awkward for having done so: was I letting the side down, or at any rate a side down, by paying my way? The driver, of course, could do nothing against the waves of impenitent cheats who crowded on to his bus, who would quickly have overwhelmed him had he raised any objections, and who probably felt they had a right to free public transport because of other dissatisfactions in their lives.
On the Paris Métro I have also often noticed young men leaping over the ticket barrier to avoid payment (I have never seen a woman do it). As crimes go, of course, this is a very small one, even if repeated. Some might even say it is a victimless crime in so far as the cheats are not so numerous as to affect the price of the tickets for everyone else.
And yet I find this behaviour disproportionately disconcerting. Why should this be? Are not these young men just displaying the natural exuberance of youth, a desire to break the rules that we all, or at least many of us, felt when we were their age?
What disconcerts me is the brazenness of their conduct. They do it in front of other people, often many other people, on the correct supposition that no one is going to intervene or protest. They do not even look embarrassed or shifty as they do it, and join the other passengers on the platform as if they had as much right as they to be there. Everyone pretends not to have noticed, or perhaps not to mind, though in fact it is probably galling for them.
Why don’t they intervene or say something? In the first place there isn’t much time. Everyone has his own worries and preoccupations without taking on fresh ones. And there is always the danger of violence, for few people are more aggressive than those who have been justly accused. Those who jump the barriers are probably more likely to carry a knife than the average citizen.
And so, by default, they get away with it. But everyone else feels diminished by his failure to do or to say anything, and becomes uncomfortably aware that a small minority are able to hold a large minority effectively to ransom. I do not know whether the resultant sense of impunity of the barrier-jumpers extends to other spheres: but I know which way I should guess.
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