- Deep beneath the streets of Paris, police are playing
a game of cat and mouse with a band of explorers who have turned the cityís
underground tunnels and chambers into their personal playground. The so-called
cataphiles, equipped with waders, torches and rucksacks, drop in through
manholes to explore disused medieval quarries and catacombs, spray graffiti
and throw parties.
- "You can just as easily come across the chairman
of a big French company as a scruffy punk," said Alex, a 24-year-old
history student who has been sneaking in for three years.
- In the pitch-black corridors 65ft below ground, everyone
goes by a pseudonym.
- "Itís part of the idea, not knowing what
people do in real life. Itís like living a double life," said
- Below street level the temperature is a constant 15C
and the humidity 100 per cent.
- While visitors line up at the official Paris catacombs
museum to view mountains of skulls and bones extracted from overcrowded
cemeteries, the clandestine groups prefer to strike out on their own.
- At the weekend, up to 400 people can be found roaming
through hushed galleries where 18th century plaques bear the names of old
streets and royal engineers.
- Skilled cataphiles elude police by ducking into corridors
or moving in the dark. Some drop smoke bombs to cloud their path and deter
newcomers they disparagingly refer to as "tourists".
- Although the intruders keep a low profile, the recent
discovery of a fully functioning underground cinema - complete with bar
and toilet - has embarrassed the authorities in charge of patrolling the
185-mile network. The set-up, including electronic sensors that set off
the sound of barking dogs, was the work of a group that has also infiltrated
the Paris metro and electricity grids. "Donít look for us,"
it said in a note.
- Police captain Luc Rougerie has little patience for the
pranks. "Nobody has any business down there," he said.
- His mission is to bar access to sensitive sites and prevent
people from getting lost or injured in the maze of corridors.
- Specially trained officers conduct regular patrols and
issue a court summons to anyone they catch. Offenders risk fines ranging
from 60 to 150 (£40 to £100).
- This rigid application of the law has left some nostalgic
for the days of Mr Rougerieís predecessor, Jean-Claude Saratte,
who tolerated experienced cataphiles and shared their passion. They in
turn would tip him off if they saw anything unusual.
- "He was surrounded by a parallel police of informers,"
said Alain Clement, co-editor of the Atlas of Underground Paris.
- Though a veteran cataphile himself, Mr Clement deplores
the vandalism that has flourished in the last 20 years.
- "I went down there for the first time in 1973, and
when I go these days and see the state of the quarries, it makes me sick,"
he said. "Itís full of young people who go there to escape
society, to drink and smoke joints."
- Mr Clement would like to see the rest of the quarries
sealed for good, but he thinks authorities are reluctant to close the network
due to fears that terrorists could strike in Europe.
- "The cataphiles, in fact, are like a clandestine
control network," he said.
- ©2004 Scotsman.com http://news.scotsman.com/international.cfm?id=1163602004