Cannes: Cops Ramping Up Security in Attempt to Prevent Robbery Redux

6:00 AM PST 05/13/2014 by Rhonda Richford
Illustration by: Matthew Woodson

Heists, chloroform, intruders: Cops are swarming town (with guns!) after thefts, large and small, rocked last year's festival.

This story first appeared in the May 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

After the headline-grabbing crime spree that shook and shocked Cannes last year -- with million-dollar heists from the Novotel and the Hotel du Cap and a massive $136 million daylight smash-and-grab job at the Carlton shortly after the film festival -- the French are pulling out the big guns.

About 350 heavily armed national police (think French SWAT) will hit the Croisette this year, part of a beefed-up security detail that also will include 200 municipal cops and 400-odd private security guards spread throughout the city. Many of the rent-a-cops also will be packing heat thanks to a special government permit allowing them to bear arms, unusual for France.

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It's all part of a full-on security press and the direct result of a Cannes security committee that was set up after last spring's crime wave. The new measures include blanket closed-circuit television coverage of the Croisette and key hotels, upgraded alarm systems and training of hotel and shopkeeper employees to spot possible criminals. But will it work?

Cannes and crime always have gone together. The Cote d'Azur region along the Mediterranean, of which Cannes is a part, has the highest incidence of crime -- both assault and property -- in all of France outside of the Ile-de-France region, which includes Paris and its suburbs. Every May, this seaside town sees an influx of high-value targets in the form of wealthy executives, VIPs and well-to-do hangers-on -- targets who attract organized gangs from Marseilles and Eastern Europe and a flood of small-time crooks looking for easy marks.

Last year, according to local police, there were 178 robberies in Cannes, many of them during the two-week festival.

"If you think about it, the festival is a dream come true for criminals," says one veteran Cannes publicist. "You've got all these people coming in jet-lagged, spending 10 days working 14-hour days and getting drunk and sloppy at night. The opportunities [for crime] are everywhere."

Nearly every longtime Cannes-goer has a tale of theft to tell. China Film Group vp Zhang Qiang last year missed his festival news conference with Keanu Reeves for Man of Tai Chi after all of his possessions -- including his passport -- were snatched from his rented Cannes apartment. CIT Group managing director Kevin Khanna and Silver Pictures co-president Steve Richards had their five-bedroom villa cleaned out. Stories of brazen muggings and burglaries abound.

Nikki Parker, executive vp at PR powerhouse Rogers & Cowan, has been robbed twice in Cannes. One time a thief entered her hotel room in the dead of night.

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"I actually woke up and had to fight with the guy, which was not a nice experience," she tells THR. He ended up making off with her bag. Other regular attendees swear to having been chloroformed by burglars and woken up to find their hotel suites or rented apartments stripped bare.

Petty crime of the purse-snatching and villa-burglary variety, however, pales in comparison to heists like last year's Carlton job, when $136 million worth of diamonds and other jewels, part of a temporary exhibit from the prestigious Leviev diamond house, were stolen in broad daylight. One of Europe's biggest-ever jewelry robberies, it remains unsolved, though there is speculation it involved the so-called Pink Panthers, an international gang operating out of Eastern Europe. According to Interpol, the Panthers have stolen nearly a half-billion dollars worth of jewels and other goods in more than 300 robberies since 1999. A loose organization of like-minded crooks, many with paramilitary training, the Panthers are renowned for working fast: Most of their jobs last less than 60 seconds. The police gave the gang its moniker after Scotland Yard detectives searched the house of a suspect and found a $750,000 blue diamond ring hidden in a tub of face cream -- just like the bandits did in one of Peter Sellers' Pink Panther movies.

"When we're talking about high-profile crimes, most of these groups are connected to very specialized groups like the Pink Panthers," says Alain Bauer, a top criminologist who advises French Prime Minister Manuel Valls on security issues. "You also have individuals or duos [usually a man and a woman] who specialize in distracting shopkeepers with fake stones or a French gang who uses 'smash and grab' techniques." Bauer says these gangs are connected to "an efficient network" of fences, gem cutters and middlemen who quickly dismantle and modify the stones, offering cash upfront. The thieves use the cash first to pay for their immediate needs -- family, house, cars, good schools for the kids and a nice holiday -- while setting aside a portion to fund their next operation.

Then there are the French thieves. George Gutierrez, a criminal prosecutor in the nearby city of Grasse, says the majority of Cannes robberies involve locals. Although not as high profile as the Pink Panthers, these crooks can be just as organized.

"They are looking for high-value targets -- most of the time it is big shops and big houses. They're not looking to mug someone on the street," he says. "But they are waiting and watching. They've got lookouts watching the hotels, who is coming in and out of the big villas. They know, for example, which hotel rooms will be vacant during the festival ceremonies … then they take action."

In the past, gangs of small-time crooks from Marseilles would hop the two-hour train ride into Cannes looking for quick scores, but Gutierrez says they mostly have given up as transit police have cracked down, increasing patrols around train stations during the festival. Veteran attendees, who remember the lawless atmosphere of 20 years ago, tend to agree.

"You used to have all these parties on the beach, and there were no real barriers between them or security," recalls a Cannes regular. "When the tide was out, you'd get these gangs of kids running along the beach, going party to party, just snatching anything and everything -- bags, shoes, whatever -- then taking off on mopeds into the hills."

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Adds Rogers & Cowan's Parker: "It's definitely gotten better. The city has really clamped down on security, [but] there's always going to be issues because of the very nature of all of these rich people who are in one place at one time."

Gutierrez believes the increased police presence, and especially the CCTV coverage of this year's Croisette, will be able to make a real dent on organized crime in Cannes.

"We'll be able to track back to see who was the lookout, so then you can go back and find out who his boss is and who that guy's boss is."

The cameras and other security measures might be bearing fruit. According to Cannes' official figures, there have been only 19 robberies this year, a sharp drop from 2013's 178 thefts. But then, again, the festival hasn't started.

For festgoers hoping to avoid a brush with crime, Gutierrez offers some practical advice: Save your priciest jewels for the red carpet. "If you are walking through the street with it, you can become a target," he says. Also, pay attention when out on the town. That guy at the bar may be checking you out for more than just a good time: "If you want to go to a club, watch who is watching you and make sure to be safe," Gutierrez adds.

Michel Chevillion, president of Cannes Hotelier Association, argues that his city actually is safer than its reputation. There is crime, he admits, but the image of Cannes as a criminal paradise is more media hype than reality.

Says Chevillion: "If something happens in Omaha, Neb., nobody hears about it, but if it happens in Cannes, the whole world knows it."

Additional reporting by Myriam Rintjema.

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