Police Play Cat & Mouse
With New French Underground

By Joelle Diderich in Paris
The Scotsman - UK
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 Alex.
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.



This Site Served by TheHostPros