Friday, December 31, 2010

African Vendors in Paris

We felt right at home when we went to visit the Eiffel Tower the other day. Even before we got to this well-known tourist attraction, we were confronted with African vendors wanting to sell us key chains in the shape of the Tower, lighters with a picture of the Tower on them, and models of the Tower itself in a variety of sizes and colours. As we were making our way along the sidewalk from the subway, they were urging us to buy something from them and, just like back in Burkina, they were even willing to negotiate the price! I listened closely as they chatted among themselves, hoping to hear someone speaking Mooré (the main language spoken in our area of Burkina), but I was apparently expecting too much in that respect because I never heard it.

Once we reached the plaza under the Tower, there were even more such vendors, though by now they were a global mix of ethnicities. Each had his wares (they seemed to be all males) spread out on a white sheet on the ground, trying to entice passersby to purchase something. But suddenly they all grabbed their sheets by cords attached to the four corners, picked up their merchandise in the resulting bundle and began running our way! No, they didn’t recognize me :) They were running from two policemen on bicycles riding towards us.

It turns out that these vendors are in fact illegal. Signs in the Tower informed us of this fact later on, warning us that the quality of their offerings could be inferior to those found in the official Eiffel Tower gift shops. But as soon as the police had gone by, they began trickling back, glancing around furtively as they set up shop again. Sure enough, just minutes later, the police arrived again, with the same results. Later on, as we were waiting in the long line to buy tickets to go up the Tower, we saw them coming through again. However, this time, they converged on a single vendor and arrested him. Interestingly, the other vendors, rather than running, gathered in several groups some distance away. For a moment, I wondered if there was going to be trouble. Were they planning on coming to their colleague’s rescue? Were they going to attack the policemen? But nothing happened.

It seems that the government here likes to make sure it gets its share of all revenue earned and these vendors are not contributing. For instance, tips in restaurants here are not encouraged because they're not possible to track for tax purposes. But to keep servers happy, a 15% gratuity is included in the price of the meals, which the government is able to track and collect the appropriate tax on.

Of course, I don’t know all the background or history as concerns this issue, but I’d be looking for ways to get these vendors legally licensed, even if it was just a small fee, rather than trying to prosecute them as doing something illegal. The salary of several license inspectors would surely be lower than the combined costs of policing, prosecution, and detainment. And the combined revenue gained from licensing could easily be higher than that gained from fines (which are also not always easy to collect anyway). In the end, everyone wins. The government gets its tax money, the vendors no longer have to always be looking over their shoulders, and the police can focus more of their efforts on real crimes.

The only losers, perhaps, would be the tourists who would be deprived of some entertainment. And stories, like this one, to write in a blog :)

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