France lauds Indian ‘hero’ killed by Paris thief

EXCEPTIONAL::The French public’s exuberant outpourings of sympathy and offers to help the family of the heroic victim mirror growing anger about rising street crime

Reuters, PARIS

Sat, Oct 08, 2011 - Page 6

The story of an Indian immigrant who died on the Paris underground — shoved onto an electric rail — after trying to defend a French woman from a thief has prompted an outpouring of support in France, where he is being hailed as a hero.

Tales of common heroism are not typical fodder for French newspapers, but the case of Rajinder Singh has been met with exceptional passion amid rising public anger over pick-pocketing, with two French groups offering on Wednesday to pay for the cost of flying his body back to India.

Singh, a 33-year-old delivery man born in India, was commuting home from work late at night on Sept. 29 when he noticed a man trying to steal a mobile phone from a woman on a metro train running through northern Paris, a police source said.

When Singh, who came to France seven years ago from his native Punjab and was known to family and friends as “Babu,” tried to intervene, the attacker pulled him off the train, fought with him and then shoved him off the platform onto the tracks where he was electrocuted by the live rail.

“This is the first time I’ve seen such a strong reaction to the story of a death in our pages,” said Antoine Barret, editor of the daily Le Parisien’s online edition, where Singh’s death was first reported on Friday last week.

An article on Tuesday describing Singh’s simple life, titled “Babu, hero of the metro,” drew more than 700 comments, with many readers offering to raise the 5,000 euros (US$6,638) it would cost to send his body back home to India.

“What’s really unusual is that we had people calling the newsroom all day yesterday to ask: ‘How can we help?’” Barret said. “This type of hero tale is more popular in the United States, but the reaction to this has been quite uncommon.”

On Wednesday two groups — a foundation linked to France’s RATP rail authority and Eclip’s, an airborne corpse delivery service — said they would work together to ensure that Singh’s body was returned to his family in Punjab.

“We have offered to ferry the body home at zero cost and are working with the RATP to organize the transfer,” said a spokesman for Eclip’s, which is based near Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport. “It seemed the least we could do.”

The man suspected of having pushed Singh, a 23-year-old of Egyptian descent, was arrested on Tuesday evening at a bar in the Pigalle neighborhood, police said.

Police did not specify whether Singh was living legally in France, but his personal history — coming to Paris seven years ago without speaking French, and working two jobs to support a family at home — is reminiscent of many who labor in the shadows of the French economy.

By contrast, a wave of aggressive thieving on Parisian streets and public transport that has been widely blamed on foreigners has attracted widespread media attention and prompted the government to launch a focused crackdown.

The crackdown comes as French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservative government has toughened its overall stance on illegal immigration ahead of a presidential election next April, imposing stricter penalties on people selling items in the street without a permit and ramping up expulsions.

A few months before his death, Singh had taken up a second job dropping advertisements in letter boxes — to pay for his sister’s wedding in Punjab, according to Le Parisien’s reports.