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Today's French Underground

As politicians talk about Paris's `excluded ones,' peddlers and violinists find a niche in the subway

THE monkey that just leaped on your head is committing a crime. So is his owner, the man in the lime-green suit who just asked you for money. All peddling and panhandling in the Paris subway are illegal.

But the subway police are going after the bigger nuisance, a puppeteer with a sound system strapped to his waist who sets up his act in subway cars. Other peddlers in the Paris metro - many of them illegal immigrants as well - they are likely to ignore.

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``We have a right to arrest violators and seize their property, but the problem is way beyond us,'' says Michelle Debois, speaking for the Paris public-transport system, or RATP. ``It involves budget, immigration, labor, and social services. And when we evict them, they return immediately.''

Much of what goes on in the Paris subway has nothing to do with transporting 4.5 million people a day under congested city streets. In addition to the 5,000 station attendants and thousands of other employees, there are at least 500 musicians, 1,500 homeless, and countless peddlers and supplicants. For such people, the vast subway system helps take up the slack in Paris's social net.

For alto violinist Manual Arce, those hours in the subway sustain a musical career that has not quite taken off on its own. ``I've lived 10 years in Paris, supported by eight years playing in the metro,'' he says. ``One year, I made enough in the summer to pay for a year of [music] study, as well as food and an apartment.''

Mr. Arce is one of 200 musicians who have won a permit from the RATP to play in the subway. He wrote to the RATP office, sending an audition tape and a curriculum vitae specifying diplomas in musical studies. There is a $60 fine for violations - Mr. Arce received 15 before he got his badge.

He now plays in a quartet six days a week. On Saturdays, the quartet appears at its regular corner at the Gare Montparnasse. No one has ever contested that spot. ``Musicians have an understanding. They will not take each other's spot,'' he says. ``These laws are not written down, but everyone respects them.''

Quite a few musicians who flock to France spend time playing in the subway, says Arce, who came to Paris from Peru to study music in 1984. Next month, two violinists from Moscow are coming to Paris to play in the subway with Arce's group. Both have won international competitions, but will finance the next stages of their careers by playing for six weeks in the metro, he says.

``We've invited the Russians to join us because we can learn from their technique,'' he says. ``For us, they're still the best in the world.''

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But many people perform in the subway only as a pretense to ask for money or as an excuse to stay in France. France's jobless rate is at a near-record 12.6 percent, and there are in addition at least 1 million illegal immigrants. In France's presidential campaign, these ``excluded ones'' are emerging as an issue. Last month, Interior Minister Charles Pasqua announced that there were 30 percent more illegals expelled from France in 1994 than in 1993.

But this increase won't solve the larger immigration problem, says a foreign ministry official. He adds: ``Deportations cost money, and you can't deport someone without papers, and foreign embassies often delay cooperation with the French police. `It's the African revenge,' they say.''

Without residency papers, illegals have access to few social benefits. But the subway can help.

``We know they're illegal, but they need help and we won't move them unless they're clearly bothering people,'' says one uniformed guard in the teeming subway station under the Arc de Triomphe de ltoile.

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