Staying Safe

While there is much less violent crime in France than in the United States, petty crime (including pickpocketing) and minor assaults occur in Montpellier, especially in certain parts of the city at certain times of the day. Because of Montpellier’s agreeable climate and location along the main routes for international travel by train, car or ship around the Mediterranean, many transients pass through the area. This situation creates certain high-risk areas and situations of a type which may be unfamiliar to you.
Having city experience in the US doesn’t mean much in Europe. People react in a completely different manner in France, and it’s normal for you to take a month or two to get adjusted to this. In southern France, people see city life as a “contact sport” – you may be bumped into, brushed against, spoken to when you don’t feel like chatting. Women may be verbally harrassed.
Follow these easy, common-sense precautions; they will become second nature, and after a few weeks in Montpellier, you will feel at home and like a native!
Keeping Your Belongings Safe
• Never leave your bags or belongings unattended. Security personnel in airports and train stations are instructed to remove or destroy any unattended luggage (if it hasn’t already been stolen by then). Do not agree to carry or look after packages or suitcases for anyone. Make sure no one puts anything in your luggage.
• Make sure your plane/train tickets, credit cards, money and passport are on your person, well-protected, and not all in the same bag or pocket. Don’t put money or credit cards in your back pocket or a coat pocket that someone can easily reach into. Keep money and valuables inside a closed bag or backpack with a zipper (not the outside pocket) or in an inside pocket of your jacket.
• Never put your name and address on your apartment keys in case they are lost or stolen. Carry your keys separately from your wallet that might have your ID in it. For example, keep your keys in your pocket and keep your wallet in your bag.
• Do not show money, credit cards or passports – be very discreet. Never carry your PIN code written on a paper with your ATM card.
• Be extremely cautious when using your smartphone in public. If you need to read/send a text, consult Google Maps, or receive/make a call, look around you to see if you are in a safe place. If the area is crowded or many people are walking past you, go into a store or another location to use your phone.
• Carry your passport only when you REALLY need it (e.g. you are going to the bank and need official proof of ID). Otherwise, find a good place to hide it in your apartment or in your room at home, or leave it in the hotel safe. When you travel outside of France, carry a photocopy of the passport separate from the passport itself; the photocopy will help expedite a replacement if the original is lost or stolen.
• When out at night, carry the strict minimum for cash and leave your credit & ATM cards at home.
• Never leave valuables (cell phone, wallet, passport, checkbook, etc.) in the trunk of a parked car – even if you think the area is safe.
• Keep your hand on your shoulder bag when you are walking around in a public place, and keep the zipper closed, be it in Montpellier or while you are traveling.
• ALWAYS lock your door fully in a hotel or your apartment, even if you are just going down the hall. NO EXCEPTIONS.
Keeping Yourself Safe
• Don’t walk alone in Montpellier or any city after dark if you can help it, especially until you know your way around and feel comfortable. Be wary around train stations in all European cities; surrounding neighborhoods tend to be a bit sketchy. Avoid dark, deserted streets: your risk of being mugged is obviously much higher if no one is around. On the other hand, you should also be wary of large crowds because it is easy to have your pocket picked. Well-lit, well-travelled streets are much safer than dimly-lit side streets.
• Avoid looking conspicuously like a tourist. Don’t stand around with your phone in your hand, call loudly to other group members in English or provide other clues you are a newcomer. If potential pickpockets think you are from the area, you are less likely to be targeted.
• Avoid speaking loudly in English or laughing loudly in public places. This goes for in the street, in restaurants, cafés, trains, stores – speak softly and be discreet. You will attract much less attention to yourselves and therefore will be bothered much less often.
• Be alert to your surroundings and the people with whom you have contact. Be wary of people who seem overly friendly or overly interested in you. Be cautious when you meet new people and do not give out your address or phone number. Be careful with information about other students or group events. Be alert to anyone who might appear to be following you or any unusual activity. Report any unusual people or activities to the police (dial 15 from any phone) immediately.
• Choose inconspicuous places to meet friends (in front of a particular store, for example) rather than the McDonald’s, the Trois Graces fountain or the steps of the Opera on the Place de la Comédie; these places are just too obvious and the local “zonards” (sketchy people) of Montpellier may hang out there. If you arrive first for a rendez-vous, be mindful of the people around you as you wait. If someone approaches you and you don’t feel comfortable, don’t stay there. Talk a walk around the block and keep moving about until your friend arrives.
• If you find yourself in uncomfortable surroundings, act like you know what you are doing and where you are going. If someone bothers you and you feel uncomfortable, move away and ask for help if needed. If you think you’re being watched or followed, cross to the other side of the street, lose yourself in a crowd or duck into a store until the person has moved on.
• Notify friends and family when you plan to travel away from Montpellier. Let them know where you will be and how you can be contacted in an emergency.
• Be aware that long hair, bare shoulders and short skirts on women can be magnets for attention – possibly unwanted attention. If you will be out and about after dark, dress conservatively and bring an accessory to tie back your hair (if yours is long). This just comes from years of experience.
Out and About in Montpellier
• Avoid La Paillade at night, commonly known a difficult suburb of Montpellier. Be very careful around the section of town between the Comédie and the train station at night. The “Rockstore” and “Macadam” cafés can be fun, but go in a group because the location is sketchy.
• If you go to a bar downtown at night, be very careful when returning home late at night. Sleep on the floor or sofa of a friend’s home rather than walk home alone, particularly if you would need to travel a considerable distance.
• Women, don’t look young men in the eyes and smile unless you are prepared for the consequences. A smile or even just a look in the eyes without a smile is a serious come-on. Beware. Just watch how French women of your age move through the streets – they never make eye contact and yet manage to walk without bumping into people too much. You’ll get the hang of it.
• Female tourists have noted that they attract less unwanted attention in public when with their male friends. Women, consider asking a male friend to walk you home; men, walk along with a female friend if asked.
• If someone asks you for money or a cigarette, just nicely say “Désolée” and keep walking. They may insist a bit, but will give up once they see they won’t get anything out of you. Just keep moving so you won’t be an easy target.
ATM Safety
• Avoid taking out money alone from an ATM. It is always preferable to go with a friend.
• Do NOT use your ATM card at night – take out the cash you need during the bank’s open hours.
• Always be extremely careful when taking out money from any ATM at any time because someone standing behind you in line might be watching you type your PIN code so he/she can steal your card and use it later. The same goes for using your debit card in a store to make a purchase (you type your code on a keypad at the cash register).
• If your card is “eaten” by an ATM, try not to leave the machine. A trick that thieves use is to put a piece of transparent fishing line in the card slot and manipulate the machine to make it look out of order. Then when you leave the machine because it has eaten your card (or so you think), they manage to get your card with the fishing line. Have the friend with you stay at the machine and you go into the bank to get help.
• Never carry your PIN code with your ATM card. If your card gets stolen in France and the thief has the PIN code, you will not be able to recover the money that was stolen. You can only contest purchases made with a stolen credit card (when the PIN code was not known).
What to Do in Case of Theft
You should, of course, follow these safety instructions to try to prevent theft from happening in the first place, as once something is stolen, it is practically impossible to recover it. However, if you are pickpocketed or something is stolen from your apartment, follow the basic steps below.
If your apartment is broken into, make sure the thief is no longer there and you are not in danger. If anything of value is stolen, call the police (dial 17 from any phone) and ask them to come to your apartment to write a report. You may have to wait some time, so please be patient. Take photos of the broken door or lock, or any sign of forced entry, as evidence; make a list of items stolen and their value in euros.
If you have a small gathering and guests you do not know personally are in attendance, you are at risk to have something stolen from your home. Please use common sense and put valuables (jewelry, computers, money, checkbooks, etc.) out of sight. If something is stolen from your home under these conditions, it is useless to call the police or your rental insurance provider because there was no forced entry.
If you forget to lock your door and things disappear from your apartment while you are not at home, it is the same situation. No forced entry = no insurance coverage.
If your purse is stolen or your pocket is picked, figure out what you have lost. Call your credit card companies immediately and CANCEL the cards. Find the telephone numbers to contact them from France ahead of time; or you can dial a 1-800 number from France to the USA by dialing 001 880 and then the number. You will be charged as you would for a regular call to the USA.
If your keys were in your bag along with a form of ID that has your name and/or address in Montpellier, have the lock changed. You shouldn’t carry your keys with ID in the same bag because this puts you in danger.
If your passport is lost or stolen, contact your home country’s embassy (likely located in Paris) to apply for a replacement. An emergency, limited validity passport may be issued for immediate travel (please bring proof of travel (such as your airline ticket) if your departure is imminent), otherwise you should expect it to take at least 4 to 6 weeks (in the case of the US) to receive your new full-validity passport.