PARIS — In the hours after armed men allegedly put a gun to Kim Kardashian’s head, tied her up, and made off with some $10 million worth of her jewelry, including the massive rock on her finger that she’d flaunted on Instagram the day before, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo released a statement reassuring the public that the crime was “very rare” and “in no way calls into question police work or the security of public space.”
A top police spokesperson echoed Hidalgo’s claims, telling the Associated Press that it was Kardashian’s celebrity status coupled with insufficient security at the residence she’d rented that made her a target.
“This is a star who is famous worldwide,” said Johanna Primevert. “Do not confuse what happened to Ms. Kardashian and probably was the result of an organized team who had planned their action with the assault of a tourist in front of Notre Dame or another tourist spot in Paris.”
Perhaps those are reassuring words for the average tourist (although not entirely), but they are far less so for the mega-rich or famous, who frequent the French capital and, incidentally, part with vastly more tourist dollars than the average Joe or Jane does on a two-week summer trip.
The fact is the City of Lights has always been enormously attractive to the rich and famous. Its best hotels, among them the Ritz, the Crillon, the George V, are called “palaces,” which indeed they are. And for most of its modern history Paris has been a place where celebrities could count on a level of privacy and public discretion hard to come by in other major cities.
But all that began to change about 30 years ago, as bling started to blow away traditional elegance and discretion gave way to the dependence of big stars on the symbiotic sycophancy of what the French call “la presse people” and paparazzi.
If one is to mark the turning point, it would be the summer of 1997, when Princess Diana was able to visit Paris with her boyfriend Dodi Fayed, dining out and strolling along the Seine in peace in July, only to be mobbed by paparazzi at the end of August, which lead to the chase and car crash that took her life.
Nothing quite so dramatic has happened since, but in the immediate aftermath of the Kardashian case, the French magazine Le Point felt compelled to ask, “Is Paris the new ‘no-go zone’ for the world’s most fortunate tourists?”
Let’s put aside, if we can, the fact that this country has become the No. 1 target in Europe for the jihadis of ISIS, many of whom originally came from here, and some of whom never left. The article in Le Point focuses on more conventional crimes, including one Sunday night, just hours before Kardashian's ordeal, when thieves snatched a Richard Mille watch valued at about $112,000 from a Qatari man on a bustling, upscale street just a short walk from the Champs-Élysées.
A Saudi princess suffered a similar attack in early August when she was stripped of her million-dollar Richard Mille watch during a stroll near the Louvre. And just a few weeks ago, celebrity Emirati chanteuse Ahlam Ali Al Shamsi had a Rolex watch and a ruby stolen when her bag was snatched as she relaxed on the terrace of Chez Francis, a high-end brasserie with Eiffel Tower views.
Wealthy Chinese tourists have also been targeted while visiting the French capital. A particularly aggressive fleecing occurred in August when men armed with tear gas attacked 27 Chinese visitors as they boarded a bus bound for Charles de Gaulle airport. The men fled with several pieces of luggage, but not before injuring two tourists and the bus driver.
There was also the bold armed robbery against a Saudi prince’s motorcade in 2014, during which the bandits hijacked a vehicle and made off with $250,000 and what the press dubbed “sensitive diplomatic documents.”
High-end shops frequented by the rich also are targeted in audacious heists like the smash-and-grab robbery of the city’s Chanel boutique back in May. Two months earlier, two men armed with a gun and a grenade entered the Chopard jewelry and watch shop at the posh Place Vendôme and raided the display cases before fleeing.
Scott Selby, co-author of Flawless, about the $100 million Antwerp Diamond Center heist in 2003, told The Daily Beast that the perpetrators of the more high-profile robberies, such as the Kardashian hold-up, specialize in luxury goods and work together in sophisticated groups where each member is tasked with a specific role.
This modus operandi has focused attention on the so-called Pink Panthers, a gang of criminals with Balkan backgrounds who have been known to operate in France, and especially on the Riviera. But they are not the only such organization.
“These are normally young to middle-aged men who have an extensive background both in the criminal world and often also in some sort of military-type background,” said Selby. “People who have a familiarity with organized crime are able to quickly come in, use the threat of violence, control a situation, and exit, and that takes a lot of resolve.”
Selby believes that high-profile robberies like the one against Kardashian are crimes of opportunity where the gangs take advantage of the fact that a celeb’s security detail tends to be more lax on the road. And while he doesn’t discount the possibility that the Kardashian heist was an inside job, he believes it was unlikely, pointing out that the baubles the celebrity sported in her public selfies likely tipped off the thieves as to exactly what jewelry she had with her.
“There are only so many places somebody like that would stay and it is easy enough to follow her to find out,” he said.
The scene of the Kardashian crimes was just steps from the Madeleine Church and the storied Ritz Hotel. L’Hôtel de Pourtalès sits behind a discreet, unmarked façade and has become a favorite hideout for the international elite, including Madonna, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Mick Jagger. But its low profile appears to have offered a very false sense of security.
What authorities have reported so far is that the thieves forced the hotel’s nighttime security guard to grant them entry into Kardashian’s apartment at about 2:30 a.m. on Monday while her hulking bodyguard, Pascal Duvier, was at a nightclub near the Arc de Triomphe with Kourtney Kardashian and Kendall Jenner. His whereabouts were no secret to the paparazzi, certainly, nor, it seems to the thieves.
Le Point writes that such attacks against the rich and stylish are also an attack on the city’s enduring image as the global bastion of all things luxurious and chic: “What with Chinese tourists, Qatari citizens, members of the Saudi royal family and now Kim Kardashian, it will take a miracle to restore Paris’s glamorous reputation.”
In the meantime, visitors to Paris may be forced to take a page from Parisians, who tend to frown on overt displays of affluence and opt for a more inconspicuous look when they hit the streets.
“Truly wealthy and powerful people do the exact opposite of the Kardashians,” said Selby. “They don’t want their name out there; they don’t want their pictures out there; they don’t want anybody to know anything. That is part of their security.”
As long as sophisticated thieves continue to stalk the super rich, it may be best to leave the bling at home, at least in the City of Lights.