Louvre Employees Walk Off Job After Rash Of Pickpocketing

Pickpockets closed Paris' famed Louvre museum. Staff went on strike seeking greater protection from pickpockets, including children, who have been targeting staff and tourists alike.

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In Paris today, the Louvre Art Museum reopened. That's after it had to close yesterday because 200 staff members walked off the job. And here's what they were protesting: pickpockets. Apparently, gangs of thieves at the Louvre are so aggressive many employees say they can no longer do their jobs properly.

Today, Eleanor Beardsley went to the museum to check out the mood.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: I head down to the underground entrance of the Louvre beneath I.M. Pei's spectacular glass pyramid. Here, the smaller, inverted pyramid of "Da Vinci Code" fame draws throngs of picture-taking tourists. People mill about, and there are several long lines of visitors waiting to get into the museum. It's easy to see why pickpockets might target this echoing hub of activity and confusion. I approach a small group of tourists.

Norway?

CARL SVENSON: Sweden.

BEARDSLEY: Sweden, OK.

SVENSON: Almost.

BEARDSLEY: Did you hear about the pickpockets?

SVENSON: Yes, yes. We were here.

BEARDSLEY: And what happened? There was a strike?

SVENSON: No. We were not allowed to get in.

BEARDSLEY: Carl Svenson says his group was sorely disappointed to be turned away yesterday, so they're back today. I ask him if they've taken any special precautions.

SVENSON: Of course, yes. Everybody is telling us to keep away from big crowds, but it's impossible to get off that.

BEARDSLEY: But you have your money tucked away or inside?

SVENSON: Yeah. We swallowed them.

(LAUGHTER)

BEARDSLEY: Employees here say the large majority of the thieves are Roma, and some are children. Thousands of Roma have come west from Bulgaria and Romania since the Balkan countries joined the European Union in 2005. The French government has been struggling to deal with the influx.

This Louvre employee, who prefers not to give her name because she's not authorized to speak, says she sees pickpockets nearly every day.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Through translator) They come here because it's easy for them to disappear into the crowd, and they have several techniques to get the guards' attention away from them. Sometimes, they smoke because they know the guards will come, and then another group steals while the attention is elsewhere. They're aggressive with us, too, and we can't do our jobs properly.

BEARDSLEY: Louvre guide Andre Giron says Chinese tourists are a main target because they carry a lot of cash.

ANDRE GIRON: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: They're not used to this type of violence, so when they feel something, they don't know how to react, he says. A Chinese tourism association expressed grave concern in March after a group was stripped of its passports and money while visiting Le Bourget Airfield and Museum in the north of Paris. The French tourism ministry has promised heightened vigilance. The Paris metro is also a fertile spot for gangs of pickpockets, and police have arrested hundreds of people.

In 2010, a Bosnian immigrant was put on trial for running a metro thieving ring using adolescent girls. After its employees walked out, the Louvre announced a series of measures to buttress security.

Herve Barbaret is deputy director of the museum.

HERVE BARBARET: (Through translator) We have reinforced our staff with police in uniform, and this will help dissuade thieves and send the message that the forces of law and order are here, and pickpockets are not welcome.

BEARDSLEY: The Louvre is home to some of the world's most famous and priceless works of art, including the "Mona Lisa" and "Venus de Milo." Last year, nearly 10 million visitors passed through its doors.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

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