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I've taken my fiancée to Paris twice - first for our 1st anniversary, and again for our 4th - and both times we had troubles with guys bothering us around the Sacré Coeur in Montmartre. They hang around the front entrance to the park and pester tourists with some sort of strange scheme involving tying string to people's fingers. From what I can tell, anyone who's ensnared by the trick ends up being pestered into buying a bit of wool for a few euros.

Often we managed to get past them immediately by saying no, but in some cases they were persistent, and in a few cases they continually grabbed us and continued to shout at us after we escaped. In one case I had to physically pull one of them off my fiancée, as he was gripping her arm tightly and trying to tie string to her hand. Not exactly enjoyable when we're trying to have a relaxing holiday. In the end we resorted to walking up the long set of stairs to the left of the park and coming back down through the top entrance, which was exhausting and left us uncomfortable in the heat.

One thing I noticed is that the police periodically appear, and the sellers run off or hide down side roads. In once case we were treated to the sight of three armed officers chasing after one of them and tackling him to the ground, much the the enjoyment of everyone watching.

So, what's the deal with these guys? Are they breaking the law by being there? What's the best way to deal with them? We love everything about Paris, especially the Sacré Coeur, but these guys are an annoyance we'd prefer to avoid.

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OMG I remember this. It was creepy as hell and it happens in other countries I well. I came across them in Italy too! –  Aditya Somani May 24 '14 at 5:14

8 Answers 8

up vote 34 down vote accepted

I think the best write-up I've seen on this is at Corporatetravelsafety.com:

They begin the Paris String Scam by engaging you in innocent conversation and will usually say that they want to show you a magic trick. Before you know it, a "string man" has grabbed your wrist or one or two fingers and encircled it with a homemade bracelet of colored string. You think the conversation or interaction is an interesting way to meet the "local flavor" of Paris and you allow them to engage you in what seems like an innocent act of being charmed by the "locals."

This happens all over Paris, and especially (obviously) in heavily-touristy areas. The scam then is to "charge" you for this bracelet you had no intention of wanting:

While the Paris String Scam may be fun to watch, when the string men finish making your new "local Paris string bracelet souvenir," the string men will demand payment of around €20 Euros when they are finished, which is quite obviously not what the bracelet is worth. If you fail to pay them, they will doggedly follow you and be VERY insistent that you provide some amount of payment.

It's also commonly used as a distraction while a fellow of theirs pick-pockets you.

So someone being tackled by the police might have been one of these pick-pocketers. Or arguably selling goods without a license, although it seems unlikely police would go tackle a guy for that (Although you see it on Westminster Bridge in London too - police appear, all the touts run off).

How to deal with them? The same site offers this:

If someone approaches you with the words ‘for the church’ or ‘bracelet’ or ‘gift’ or 'magic' or 'trick' and they are carrying strings, just put your hands in your pockets and keep walking. For those string men who are more aggressive, politely say "Non, merci" but most importantly - keep on walking - do not stop. Be courteous but firm, and the string man who's targeted you will usually then move on to the next victim. If you really want a string bracelet as a souvenir, you can easily get one free: Just pick up strings that unhappy tourists have discarded on the steps leading up to the Basilica.

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"Non merci" is totally the trick. "No thankyou" gets you pestered, "non merci" (in a semi reasonable accent) gets you left alone –  Kate Gregory Feb 6 '13 at 21:03
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Excellent answer. I'm pretty sure the guy was arguing with the police before he ran, which would explain him being tackled. My French accent is non-existent, but I'll give the "non merci" trick a go. –  Polynomial Feb 6 '13 at 21:54
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@KateGregory ignoring people, like they're not even there, gets you left alone the quickest. –  trideceth12 Feb 7 '13 at 18:06
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@Benjol: I highly doubt that would work in Klingon. Jokes aside, saying it in french might convince them you are maybe not a tourist. –  ereOn Feb 8 '13 at 7:44
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@Benjol: Why in Arabic? The french version is enough to upset them. –  mouviciel Feb 8 '13 at 15:40

I went several times to this park and I never had to deal with that kind of people (I am French). They certainly target tourists so I would recommend the usual stuff I apply to myself not to be bothered in such a case.

  • Walk confidently, a bit fast. You know where you are going.
  • Do not look around or stroll in front of them. Look in front of you.
  • If they start speaking do not ignore them. Shake your head or say something like "non. s'il vous plait" at worst but don't stop.
  • It is better if you know a bit of French: "Je suis pressé", "Pas le temps", "non, MERCI", "C'est bon"...

Of course it is a lot harder to escape notice when you are a couple and you obviously look foreigner...

Note that there is a small entrance to this park higher on the right side.

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In Paris always say no to solicitors. I haven't had this one happen to me, but I've had the calling card scam done on me. My answer is always say no.

I don't suggest no merci. Yes, its in French, but you can pick the English accent miles away.

I always walk through them. If they grab you or try to stop me, I say 'eh ohhh'. You have to say it with a slightly upset tone, and kind of loud but not really. Using your throat to make the noise is a plus. It's also ok to jerk your arm away if they grab it. By saying 'eh ohhh' you are saying, I'm upset, you crossed the line, leave me alone.

I lived in Brittany for a year, and then some time in the Marseilles area.

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not everyone is American. I'm Canadian and my non merci apparently can pass :-) –  Kate Gregory Feb 7 '13 at 16:50
    
I'm British, not American, so I could probably get away with it. –  Polynomial Feb 7 '13 at 20:54
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My accents seems pretty obvious... I think it screams easy cash, quick call the pickpocketeers :) –  BungaBunga Feb 8 '13 at 18:34
    
Edited! English accents. America != world. –  BungaBunga Feb 8 '13 at 18:42

Paris is a great city to visit - great museums, amazing works of art in galleries, good food, interesting architecture and buildings. Unfortunately, this means lots of people do visit it, and with that comes problems.... As other questions mention, a lot of Parisians get fed up with tourists who make no attempt to speak French, and a small number try to take advantage of them :(

If you check WikiVoyage you'll see details of a few of the scams to avoid. For basically every one though, the key factor is they're only tried against tourists, especially tourists who don't speak French. Partly it's that if you spend much time there you'll learn to recognise the scam, and partly that you'll know how to report it to the police. As Mark mentions, they generally clear off when the Police appear...

As a slight aside, I had an interesting chat with my sister over Christmas about Paris. She learnt German at school, I learnt French, and our experiences of Paris were completely different. She'd suffered rude waiters and people trying to scam her, I've generally found it all fine. The difference seems to be a small amount of French.

For almost all of Paris, try and speak in a little bit of French first, as per this question. If it's a scam, they'll generally ignore you if they think you're a native, so a "non, merci" should be fine. If it's something real, they'll either switch to English, or ask someone else (eg someone stopping you to ask for directions). A bit of French almost always seems to help in restaurants, especially in tourist areas!

If you look and act like a local, you'll be fine, and you can have an amazing time in Paris. If you look like the baby animal that was separated from the herd and is now being surrounded by big cats, well, things aren't looking promising for you...

Quick summary - learn a few words of French, politely say no in French if approached on the street with something that might be a scam, and try not to look like a slightly confused+lost American tourist.

If possible, travel near a group who does look like that, the hunter pack will sense their weakness and take them down, leaving your part of the herd free to graze and wander ;-)

(Seriously though, I've been to Paris quite a bit, with levels of French varying from basic beginner through to my current levels, and the only time I ever had problems was when I was half asleep and responded in English to someone at the Sacré Coeur, and I got out of that one with one of the mentioned string bracelet thingies for the price of a coffee)

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I had the same experience at the Sacré Coeur in Montmartre (multiple times).

I am a guy but I am blonde, milky white and slim, so I must look like an easy touristy target. As soon as I entered the little park at the bottom of the steps I encountered the first "string man". I instinctively knew it was a scam, so I clenched my hand as soon as they asked for my finger and continued to power walk past him (success).

I only got a few yards before the next one approached. I used the same technique as I had on the first but this guy grabbed my wrist tightly and tried to wrench my hand open. I was a little stunned and shaken that I had had to fight a stranger off, but I thought it was a one off and tried not to let it spoil my visit to the Sacré Coeur.

On the way down my guard was well and truly up, I spotted the second guy and went the opposite way to avoid him only to bump into a third. He was of course the worst of the three he had such a grip on my arm that strangers were running over to help me break free, I was shouting he was shouting, it was awful.

I suppose I was successful by the fact that they didn't get my money, but I think if you look like Bambi to these guys there is little you can do to stop being targeted.

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There are various scams of this sort all over the world. In Paris, it's the "string" scam. In NYC, where I am, it's the "ketchup" scam.

In the New York City version, one or more operators will start by spilling ketchup over your clothes. A confederate will point it out to you, and either try to "clean you up" using crude materials, and then charge you for the clean up, or else he'll distract you while the first person picks your pocket.

Unfortunately, a lot of what we learned from mother about "don't talk to strangers" applies. Of course you need to talk to ticket agents, conductors, and others while travelling, but don't talk to strange people, particularly out of uniform, that seem to be "overly" friendly; they usually have ulterior motives. And if someone gets your clothes dirty, tries to attach strings to your arms, or messes with you personally in any way, run for the hills. If you like, you may shout "police," or something similar. (It sounds the same in French as in English, and the other word I've used is "voleurs," thieves.)

Basically, "touching" in any way, shape or form is suspicious. If it seems to be accidental, then let it go unless it is repeated and becomes a pattern. More to the point, if it is done without your consent, it's a crime by itself, and may be prelude to a real crime. (Hint: don't give consent to anyone you don't know well.) As such, you are entitled to sound the hue and cry for the police and other authorities for even a minor assault. None of the "string people" want to be investigated, so they'll run away as soon as you do this.

To protect yourself, it's not necessary to be a local. The most important thing is not to act like the typical curious, fun-seeking "tourist." The best mentality to use is that of a sentry, patrolling the ground for enemy intrusion, ready to challenge someone (verbally) on the slightest suspicion, and if necessary, "shoot on sight."

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I was in Paris this summer and saw all the creeps trying to sell things to people. The string guys at Sacré Coeur were out in full force, but didn't attempt to talk to my friend or I (likely because we are both blonde, caucasian, and looked like natives). They mostly converge near the bottom of the steps to the church, so just look out for groups of loitering guys trying to talk to people and go the opposite direction. At Pont des Arts, there were guys selling locks and guys trying to pull the string scam. I was with a group but was standing alone for a moment when one guy came up to me and tried to offer me a string. I knew what he was doing and was maybe a little too forward with my, "Non, merci." (I waved him off with my hand, and may have added a curt, " Va t'en!" which in hindsight was a risky thing to do.) Basically, don't make eye contact, walk with a purpose (or at least the appearance of one), keep any conversation limited to "non merci", and don't let them put their hands on you!

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I just got back from le sacre coeur and went online immediately to find out what the deal with the strings were. I was very persistent in getting away from them but they are relentless. At first I saw them and I put on my headphones and played music loudly thinking that would cause them to not try like most other French scammers, but my Cal beanie easily made me a target. The first guy I ran into kept talking to me when I had my headphones on and a firm grip on me and it took quite a bit of force to break free which was uncomfortable. More had seen me but I went out of the front gates at the bottom looking for another way and I found a side entrance on the right that gets past the first set of steps where most of them are. I used that and one of them saw me and gave me a nasty look and proceeded to follow me so I ran up the steps and got into plain sight so I was good. Then on my way back down I tried to go with another group of people hoping they would avoid us. They first targeted a woman in the group I went down with and they just walked by and didn't say anything and got away and then I had to deal with it. I said no thank you which I then immediately realized was a mistake because he was very persistent. I said I had to go meet someone for lunch please let go of me AND KEPT WALKING. Eventually the first guy left me alone but then I ran into another and he held my hand with an even tighter grip refusing to let go. I also kept moving my fingers so he couldn't tie anything on it. I also keep my wallet and phone in my front jacket pocket with the button over it so I knew I couldn't get pickpockets so I wasn't worried about that but I still obviously knew no one just goes around and ties strings on people's fingers all day for no reason. This guy was trying to be nice and said "its ok look at my eyes, look" and then I knew they were at least trying to pickpocket me because if my eyes look at his I'm not looking at my belongings so I just broke free of the grip very forcefully and kept walking. The whole time I never stopped walking which is how you make sure to get away and also don't respond to them. If you are willing to say no thank you, then they know you are probably more likely to stop and watch or talk further. They try to be nice to you but there's no nice way around it you just have to ignore them and keep walking and I recommend trying to go through the entrance on the left side of the main entrance you can try to avoid some of them although sometimes they wait a little higher up. Hope this helps and yes I can agree it's quite annoying.

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