Perhaps because of the places we frequented, my gender, bearing, or the colour of my skin, in all my twelve years in London, I was never stopped by the police, far less asked to produce any papers or searched. Neither did I ever witness it happening to anyone else. Although statistics told me that stop and searches were on the increase in the UK, if I thought about it at all, the concept seemed to me at once outlandish and outrageous to me.
I have been in France for a year, and so far I have been stopped by the police three times. In a way it would be comforting to suppose that this was down to my being English, but on none of these occasions have I opened my mouth before I was stopped (and my wardrobe, whilst not yet running to a pair of leather trousers for the purposes of the school run, no longer screams ANGLO-SAXON either). I have racked my brains but there are no other obvious justifications for this having happened. On none of these occasions was I behaving at all suspiciously. The village where we live may not be Chipping Norton, but it is about as smart as it gets just outside Lyon, and is certainly not a hotbed of crime or dissent. And yes, my most recent stoppage occurred about a fortnight after the terror attacks in Paris, but the same could not be said for the two previous occasions.
The last occasion went something like this: it was half past five and I was driving the children home from their swimming lesson in our tiny red Citroën when my attention was caught by two men in fluorescent jackets, standing in my lane and gesticulating for me to pull over. I began to panic. Undoubtedly I had been careering slightly as I was driving, having been distracted by the usual 101 questions emanating from the back of the car and by the need to swerve periodically to avoid the usual obstacles in any French road (pedestrians, aggressive motorists, potholes). It was possible that I had nudged myself over the 50km per hour speed limit in the confusion, but I did not think so. Or perhaps one of our lights was not working correctly? I was supposed to carry a spare bulb in the car at all times. I began to tremble slightly as I slowed the car to an absurd crawl and pulled into a side road.
I wound down the window as one of the yellow-jacked men strode up, importantly. It was only at this moment that I saw the gendarmes van and a third man, this one in black uniform, wearing a flak jacket and carrying a large, rectangular gun. The questions from the back multiplied (it is not very reassuring to be on the receiving end of questions about whether or not you will be shot by the scary soldier if you have been going too fast). Tension mounted.
It turns out, of course, that it was a spot check. They wanted to see my driving licence, my car insurance documents and my carte grise (this is a compulsory document which shows the ownership of the car). All of these things should have been very simple to produce but, being British and therefore slightly allergic to the idea of carrying myriad baffling papers with me at all times, I floundered. It just so happened that this was the one occasion on which I had left my purse at home, and so I did not have my driving licence. As for the insurance documents and carte grise, they were in a pocket of the car, but in my panic I failed to locate them. Not being able to produce these documents carried it a 50 Euro on-the-spot fine, the gendarme informed me: without them how could I prove who I was, where I lived, that I could drive, and that I had not stolen the car? What was there to stop them from throwing me into prison if they could not determine my identity? We trembled collectively in the car.
Eventually, doubtless feeling sorry for me with my clueless English accent, Mr yellow-jacket sent me home to bring back the missing documents immediately. I duly drove back cautiously (in case they were watching) and scampered about the find the necessary papers, before returning to the scene of my misdemeanour. The gendarmes having inspected the documents thoroughly (my UK driving licence caused a bit of excitement, and even the man with the gun came over to baffle over it), I was released to go home, unfined and ultimately more cross than shaken.
I should not have been surprised, now that I think about it. As previously noted, the French do love a mound of papers in any context, and I was undoubtedly naïve to suppose that the question of one’s identity was any different in this respect. In France, you can be as scintillating as you like, but really, without your piece d’identité, driving licence, carte grise, justificatif du domicile, carte vitale, and even, on a bus, your titre, you are either nobody, or worse, even as you transport your children home from swimming, you are a threat to the security of the nation. It is a probably a useful lesson in humility to realise that as a person I can be never be as important as the sum of my paperwork, though it was a lesson the French state might have been able to teach me (and my children) without the aid of a machine gun.