BAG MEN

Paris, City of Heists

The smash-and-grab hit on Chanel’s Avenue Montaigne shop is just the latest in a long line of hold-ups at ultra-luxe French boutiques.

PARIS — The poor handbags didn’t stand a chance.

In the latest brazen robbery of one of Paris’s storied boutiques, three men armed with pump-action shotguns and axes entered the Chanel shop on the ultra-chic Avenue Montaigne just after noon on Thursday. They ordered employees onto the floor and smashed storefront windows before fleeing with the luxury loot to a getaway car parked just outside. (In case you’re not up on these things, Chanel bags can easily cost $3,000 to $10,000.)

“I saw some masked men running out,” an electrician who unwittingly found himself standing in front of the getaway car told Agence-France Press. “Then I saw that one of them had a gun so I got out of there.”

The bold broad-daylight heist is the second time in less than a month that the iconic shop has been targeted. In the wee hours of April 28, robbers rammed a Jeep Cherokee into the store’s iron security gate before helping themselves to another haul of handbags worth hundreds of thousands of euros. To cover their tracks, the thieves torched the jeep and fled on scooters.

Although jeep-as-battering-ram makes for a more dramatic entry, Thursday’s thievery stands out because of its midday occurrence in a very busy area of the city. Moreover, Avenue Montaigne sits right off the famous Avenue des Champs-Élysées, a tourist-heavy part of Paris where heightened security has become a fixture since November’s terror attacks.

A fluke, perhaps? Or, maybe not. Thursday’s luxury looting follows a similar midday caper on March 1, when two men armed with a gun and a grenade entered the Chopard jewelry and watch shop at the posh Place Vendôme at around 12:40 p.m. The men raided the display cases, helping themselves to an as yet unrevealed sum of luxury jewelry before fleeing.

The heist happened so quickly that even neighboring establishments were unaware of what was going on until the perpetrators were long gone.

“We only found out what had happened after the police arrived,” a concierge at the adjoining hotel told Agence-France Presse.

Indeed, a police official told the media that the entire robbery unfolded in “between five and 10 minutes.”

Speed and efficiency aren’t the only weapons wielded by the city’s audacious armed bandits. Creativity can play a part too, as it did during the infamous double heist at Paris’s Harry Winston jewelry store almost a decade ago. In October of 2007, a group of men disguised as painters gained access to the shop’s service entrance, thanks to a devious store employee. After beating and tying up store staff, the men took off with 360 items of jewelry and 120 watches worth an estimated €32 million euros ($35.9 million).

Then a year later in what French media called “the steal of the century,” the same group of men—this time dressed as women—hit the Winston boutique again, brandishing handguns and making off with €80 million euros ($99.8 million) worth of high-end bling.

“In a television series about robberies they’ve got bullet-proof vests,” defense lawyer Eric Dupond-Moretti told the media during the men’s trial last year. “Here, we have fishnet stockings and high heels.”

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This caper was not without consequences however. The cross-dressing criminals received jail sentences ranging from nine months to 15 years.

Perhaps France’s most infamous jewel thefts have been perpetrated by the Pink Panthers: The sophisticated international syndicate made up of criminals from the former Yugoslavia who came of age during the brutal Balkan wars of the 1990s. The gang earned their nickname after police discovered a stolen jewel hidden in face cream following a diamond store robbery in London’s exclusive Mayfair neighborhood reminiscent of a scene in the old Peter Sellers film, The Return of the Pink Panther.

Like those behind the Harry Winston grab in Paris, the Pink Panthers are known to wear disguises and are believed to be behind some of the country’s most daring heists over the past two decades, among them the 2013 robbery of a diamond exhibition at the Carlton International hotel in Cannes.

In a scene worthy of a Hollywood film, a lone man armed with a handgun strode into the hotel, took €122.9 million ($138 million) worth of gems in about 60 seconds, and escaped by jumping out a window.

Following the arrests of some 200 members, the Pink Panthers’ power is thought to be waning in recent years. However, their notoriety endures. The group is the subject of a 2013 documentary Smash & Grab: The Story of the Pink Panthers, as well as a fictional series airing in France and the U.K. Based on reporting by French journalist Jérôme Pierrat, who wrote a book on the gang, Panthers (The Last Panthers in the U.K.), premiered in 2015. The series is currently available for U.S.-based viewing on Sundance TV.

“They were an army formed by the war who became bandits,” series actor Tahar Rahim told French television station Canal+ last year. “I know there is also a bit of a Robin Hood side to them, and that they never killed anyone.”

Although the Pink Panthers’ heyday may be over, heists, both small-time and more elaborate, still plague the City of Lights.

Two years ago, Kalashnikov-wielding assailants ambushed a Saudi prince’s convoy on a highway en route to Le Bourget airport. The gunmen got away with €250,000 ($281,000) in cash and what were described as sensitive documents. Police arrested 11 people in connection with the hold-up last year, and while those detained have yet to be linked to the Pink Panthers, the notorious gang wasn’t far from the minds of police officials.

“This kind of operation had nothing to do with petty crooks on scooters who sometimes attack the cars of rich tourists,” a police officer told Paris Match. “Rather, we are in the realm of organized crime or the Pink Panthers.”

As for the Chanel bandits, to date no arrests have been made. Indeed, they appear to have taken a page from past smash-and-grabs in the City of Lights: Get in, grab the goods, and disappear faster than you can say “conspicuous consumption.”