Thursday, April 10, 2008

Bicycle thieves

This weekend, I'm looking forward to discovering the celebrated Vélib phenomenon: the free bikes of Paris. It's funny to think that I used to belong to the audacious minority who rode bikes through the dangerous streets of Paris back in the '70s.

Paris has always abounded in bicycle thieves, and the police have a hard job tracking them down and apprehending them.

I've just heard that, during the time since the Vélib system was set up, in July 2007, some 700 bikes have been stolen, and that many offenders have been blacklisted.

In France, a prestigious organization called the Commission nationale de l'informatique et des libertés [CNIL: National Committee for Computing and Liberty] makes sure constantly that the rights of French citizens are not being attacked or eroded, maybe surreptitiously, through the use of computers. The existence of this committee reflects an excellent French republican idea, and it appears to be effectively operational. For example, I was rather excited about the idea of seeing my name in the Journal Officiel, last month, when I was naturalized. But a polite note appeared on my computer screen stating that the CNIL did not authorize the explicit display of the identity of new citizens. Great stuff, I won't complain about that.

On the other hand, the CNIL has authorized Parisian authorities, not surprisingly, to computerize its blacklist of bicycle thieves, so that the police will find it easier to track them down. Once again, great stuff!

In his tongue-in-cheek Plaidoyer pour un génocide [Plea for a Genocide], my writer friend Jean Sendy [who died back in 1978] surprised us with the following affirmations:

Tout logicien sait qu'un crime parfait est très difficile à réussir, très long à préparer ; un criminel assez intelligent pour ne pas se faire prendre ne met donc pas la société en péril : au pire, il ne recommencera pas de sitôt ; au mieux il sera assez intelligent pour comprendre que ce n'est pas rentable et ne jamais recommencer. En bonne logique, les petits voleurs, les voleurs de bicyclette, doivent au contraire être éliminés aussitôt le délit établi : la médiocrité de leur entreprise les contraint à récidiver sans cesse, et prouve qu'ils sont trop bêtes pour être utiles à la société ; au mieux, on ne peut que les empêcher de nuire, en leur assurant vivre et couvert dans des prisons ruineuses pour le budget. Le seul défaut de ce raisonnement est son indifférence à la morale.

For readers whose French does not allow them to understand Jean Sendy: He says that great criminals don't really hurt society, whereas mediocre bicycle thieves, who annoy us constantly, should maybe be executed immediately... were it not for our moral qualms. Sendy was both a brilliant thinker and a good writer. A great friend, too. I think of him constantly, like Pierre Schaeffer and Albert Richard. Those three men, my cultural forebears, made me wish to become French.

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