Gang steals €4.5m of gems: the world cheers

Evil heroes: Three men who robbed, killed and caused untold misery. Yet they remain iconic.

Is it wrong to romanticise criminals? On Wednesday night an armed gang stole jewels worth millions from a Paris hotel. And yet many are cheering them on, impressed by their sheer chutzpah.

The Hemingway Bar at the Ritz hotel, Paris — cheapest room: €1,000 per night. Named after the famous American writer, it is a small, lavish room where F. Scott Fitzgerald once had a favourite seat.

At 6:30 on Wednesday evening, the aristocratic calm in the bar was shattered as hooded men men burst in, firing handguns. One woman present described “total panic” as patrons fled.

Away from the bar, the men smashed display cases in a jewellery shop inside the premises and made away with their loot on scooters. Soon they ran into a police patrol. Officers managed to arrest three of them but two more escaped.

Local reports suggested that as much as €4.5m worth of jewellery had been taken. The only piece to be recovered so far is a diamond-encrusted cross worth €30,000.

How would you have liked to be present in the hotel at the time? Most would fear for their life. But a look at the comments underneath The Times’s report on the robbery suggests a rather different attitude towards such a serious crime.

“Bloody brilliant.” “This is EXACTLY the sort of news I want to read about. Superb.” “No one will miss it. Just rich people’s toys.”

Ever since the days of Robin Hood, our culture has had a fascination with criminals. Think of the words used to describe them: outlaws, bandits, desperadoes, artful dodgers. As Duncan Campbell puts it in The New Statesman: “All have a romantic feel in a way the nicknames for the police – plods, peelers, busies, the filth – do not.”

Such criminals are viewed in a way that would be unthinkable for other categories of wrongdoer. Butch Cassidy, a notorious robber in the days of the Wild West, is presented as an affable, clever hero in a famous film.

And what was “great” about the Great Train Robbery, when £2.6m was stolen from a mail train in 1963? Yet its main perpetrator, Ronnie Biggs, was celebrated for his various publicity stunts after escaping from prison.

Is this really the right attitude for society to take?

Smash and grab

There are very understandable reasons to instinctively side with such criminals. One is an admiration for their cunning intelligence: stealing €4.5m worth of gems is not easy. There might also a certain perverse bravery to these heists. But most important is our healthy love of the underdog and the idea of dealing a blow to the unloveable, rich, powerful establishment.

Others respond that we should heed the words of Justice Edmund Davies, who sentenced Ronnie Biggs: “Let us clear out of the way any romantic notions of daredevilry. This is nothing less than a sordid crime of violence inspired by vast greed.” These crimes destroy lives, and it is a failure of empathy with the victims to celebrate these people.

You Decide

  1. Do you want the two robbers still on the run to be caught?
  2. What is the main reason society romanticises certain criminals?

Activities

  1. Write a short news report of an imaginary robbery.
  2. Research a famous historical robbery, showing how it was planned and executed, and explaining how society viewed the perpetrator or perpetrators.

Some People Say...

“The underdog winning is the romantic position.”

Malcolm Gladwell

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
French media have reported that the three men captured were all seasoned criminals, well known to police. No one was injured in the attack. We know that unlikely robberies like this often attract significant media attention, partly due to the strange, morally ambiguous way in which the public views the criminals involved.
What do we not know?
Whether the two criminals on the run will be tracked down. They escaped on motorcycles away from the Place Vendôme, the square in the centre of Paris where the hotel is located, and their identities will be unknown to the public, as they have not been disclosed by the police. We still do not know the exact value of the jewellery stolen.

Word Watch

The Ritz hotel, Paris
The hotel reopened last year after four years of refurbishment work. It is owned by Mohamed Al Fayed, the owner of Harrods and the father of Dodi Al Fayed, who died in the same car crash as Princess Diana, with whom he was in a relationship.
F. Scott Fitzgerald
One of the most famous American writers of the first half of the 20th century, Fitzgerald is best known for writing The Great Gatsby. Like Ernest Hemingway, he was one of the “Lost Generation” — the term used to describe American writers who left for Europe after the first world war.
Arrest
The police used stun guns to immobilise them. Gérard Collomb, the French interior minister, praised the “sang-froid, professionalism and quick reactions” of the officers.
Butch Cassidy
Immortalised in the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Cassidy partnered with Harry Longabaugh, nicknamed the “Sundance Kid”, to rob banks and trains as leaders of the Wild Bunch, a group of outlaws. They eluded police by escaping to South America.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.