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The Art Issue

Comme Les Cochons

Getting to know the thieving, cheating lives of French Sapeurs.
December 1, 2003, 12:00am

This guy was in the sapeur part of town but refused to say if he was one or not. We have no evidence either way. Photo by Jamie-James Medina.

You may know France as simply the most peace-loving, idealistic, freedom-promoting, anti-war-blah-de-blah nation in the world, but this foul-smelling pays (that now goes by the name “Freedom”) is also home to one of the most retarded forms of self-expression ever conceived. In the black areas of Paris (Barbes, Chateau d’Eau), there exists a community of immigrants from the Congo who call themselves sapeurs (which comes from S.A.P.E., which comes from Société des Ambianceurs et Personnes Elégantes, which comes from The Society of People of Ambience and Elegance). Sapeurs are men who spend all their time robbing, stealing, and scamming in a desperate attempt to get tons of garish haute couture from fashion houses like Yohji Yamamoto, Versace, Yves Saint Laurent, and Cerruti. Each time a sapeur leaves a shop, the owner has least 5,000 euros in his greasy palm. Gross, eh? For some boring and obvious sociological reason that I can’t be bothered to go into, your typical sapeur thinks that the notion of looking like a Western dandy equals power and respectability. Even if there are a couple of babies at home eating wine corks for dinner (which there usually are), these dudes would rather buy a 4,000-euro pair of Gucci flip-flops than see their families living in anything better than louse-ridden squalor. The end result? An incredibly faggy-looking immigrant and a baby with his eyes crusted over from malnutrition. Yes, wine corks do that. This ridiculous and depressing movement was invented by the self-styled “king of rumba rock” and “best-dressed voice of Paris,” Papa Wemba. Unfortunately, this godfather to millions of Congolese and the self-styled “chief” of the sapeur movement was arrested on February 21 this year in Bobigny, because he was suspected of organizing the clandestine immigration of hundreds of Congolese sapeurs and their families. Wemba (a.k.a. Jules Shungu Wembadio Pene Kikumba) is accused of charging 3,500 euros for every illegal visa he set up. Part of his scam was claiming that each illegal was part of his band, Viva The Music. The police eventually busted him when they found out that 78.45 percent of his band members could barely name any musical instrument at all, let alone fucking play one. Now he sleeps in a one-room jail cell that’s a far cry from the luxurious lifestyle and garishly decorated Belgian mansion he’d become accustomed to (dude is so obsessed with fashion, he called his daughter Chanel). It’s not the first time Papa’s fallen afoul of the law. Although you won’t find any mention of it on his website, he was arrested back in 1980 for abusing a woman. His latest arrest, however, has much deeper implications for his hugely misled followers. It may have put them on the endangered list. When our photographer arrived in Paris on the Eurostar in search of some sapeurs, he was a little taken aback to see French police detain and search every single black person sharing his train. When we eventually met up with him and got into the city, we saw hundreds of armed police officers in bulletproof vests driving around in riot vans, stopping black people in the ghetto-ized areas of the city such as Barbes, Chateau Rouge, and Chateau d’Eau. During my three days there, I must have seen at least 30 illegal immigrants arrested on the streets and taken away in vans by police, and they were all dressed amazing. Every time we tried to talk to the cops about what was going on, we were chased off or had to produce our passports and speak pidgin Français to them. We got the feeling this abomination of their open-door policy was hurting their pride, and they wanted the problem swept under the rug as soon as possible. The sapeurs seemed equally threatened by the exposure. The ones we tried to photograph either threatened us with a hand motion that looked very much like they wanted to break the camera and our necks, or they asked for preposterous amounts of money. One middle-aged sapeur wearing a red Burberry suit with the labels sewn on the sleeve told us, “God gave me the gift of the spirit and of the soul but he didn’t give me money, so you must pay me plenty money now for the picture, OK? I live a very expensive lifestyle. You know James Bond? 007? Look at my clothes. OK, that’s me. You must pay me the money now.” We tried to ignore his cash pleas and change the subject to Papa Wemba’s recent arrest, to which he responded, “OK, give me the money now.” When we showed him our empty pockets he turned up his nose and said, “Au revoir.” After a few days of accosting sapeurs on the streets, we went to dancehall and rumba record shops, all covered in posters of Papa Wemba and other sapeur favorites like Koffi Olomide (whose latest album cover has him on a motorbike wearing a fetching white full-length sheepskin jumpsuit, white snakeskin cowboy boots, and a fedora). As soon as we mentioned the word sapeur we were met with furrowed brows and whispers amongst staff before being told, “Je ne comprend pas.” Usually we were asked, politely, to leave. Just about the only person we could find who would talk about sapeurs without giving us funny looks and asking us to leave the premises was a stunning girl from the Congo who we met late one night at a dancehall club in Chateau Rouge. “The sapeurs, they don’t eat much but they buy clothes,” she laughed. “They’re only into women as a means of getting money to buy clothes. They don’t care much about their families or anything, just as long as they look good. Now, though, with the chief being arrested, it looks like they’re dying out. You don’t see many of them around now. They’re all disappearing.” Catching the Metro home back from the overpriced bars and grimy hardcore sex shows of the Pigalle (where amyl nitrate is pumped through the air conditioning and the girls sit in your lap and suck their fingers while they fuck themselves with vibrators), I saw one modern-day sapeur slap his bitch with such force that you could probably hear the wallop three carriages away. Amazingly, the sapeur’s girl was cool with it, and instead of screaming blue murder or hitting him back, merely fixed her wig, picked her oversize golden earring up off the floor and attached it back to her ear. When they got to Roucheart/Barbes, they walked off together. As he brushed down his suit and checked his cowboy hat in the reflection of an advertising display, she touched her cheek and bowed her head to the floor. Hopefully, the sapeur movement will soon be fucked. Word in Paris is that greasy president Jacques Chirac is highly aware that it’s not cool to be seen encouraging the deranged values that the sapeurs hold so dear when you’re trying to pass yourself off as an international man of peace and goodwill. That’s why he’s ordered his police to stop-check every Congolese on sight. Actually, wait a minute––isn’t Chirac the guy who was photographed recently giving a Masonic handshake to Robert fucking Mugabe, the Zimbabwean tyrant who spends most of his time mutilating and slaughtering his own people (mostly white farmers) to keep his wife dressed in Prada and Versace? Fuck all those lunatics. Bring on the dancehall girls! ANDY CAPPER