Torben, a young Dane from Aarhus, was so stressed one July afternoon when he returned to Nice from a half-day's trip to Ventimiglia that he was failed by his usually excellent English. He had driven across the frontier because he had been told that's where the bargains were. He gleefully stocked up with Lacoste teeshirts, Chanel perfume, a couple of Montblanc pens and a state-of-the-art Motorola cell phone. All of these items were knock-offs, of course, copies of the real products of poor quality, though that wasn't immediately obvious to the untrained eye.
"Great harm to the economy"
So what didn't Torben understand? He was flagged down by Italian police as he was about to leave Ventimiglia. They searched his car, seized his shopping - and told him he was due for a fine of ... 3300 euros! Across the frontier he was stopped again but, of course, bereft of his booty, was quickly waved on. So what Torben didn't understand was this: at certain times of year - during the tourist high season and again in the days leading up to Christmas - the authorities crack down on the huge trade in fake "luxury" goods which flourishes in and around Ventimiglia. It does great harm to the economy: sucking revenue away from both manufacturers and straight retailers. This last summer season there was a co-ordinated campaign by carabinieri and gendarmes. The Italians showed themselves to be especially severe in applying a new range of penal measures on their side of the frontier.
A gendarme told us: "It's a mug's game, really. Even if you get caught on this side and you're not obviously a big-time trafficker although the fine might be smaller your purchases will be confiscated and destroyed. If you're picked up with a lot of stuff, of course, the penalty could be much harsher." And a final warning from Françoise Souliman, a senior official at the Prefecture in Nice: "This end of year we'll be out in force and so will our Italian colleagues. We're determined to stamp on the trade in fakes."