(MENAFN - AFP) Dressed for work in his dapper suit and tie, he doesn't look like your average fare dodger.
But, as a ticket checker walks past there is an audible sigh of relief from the young professional on a commuter train to Paris.
"Phew, he didn't stop," he says, readily acknowledging that he is one of a growing number of French people who prefer to risk a fine rather than buy a ticket.
The fare dodgers have become a major headache for the country's train and bus operators.
In the midst of an economic downturn that has squeezed almost everyone's spending power, the phenomenon has reached such a level that authorities are torn over what to do about it: order a genuine crackdown or, more radically, simply give up the fight and make all public transport free of charge.
"Even when paying fines, it's much cheaper than a season pass," the young executive explains as the train makes its way south to the French capital.
Gone are the days when fare dodging was the preserve of deprived youths from the suburbs.
Nowadays, most sections of the population are taking part in what has almost become a national sport. At some stations in the prosperous western suburbs of Paris, women in Chanel suits are just as likely to be seen jumping the turnstiles as teenagers in hoodies.
It can even be an organised crime. At some universities, students can pay a small amount each month into a clandestine fund that will cover any fines that members incur on public transport.
In Paris, members of such funds contribute between five and seven euros (7 and 9) a month -- effectively a form of insurance. A yearly student pass works out at 27 euros a month.
Technology also makes life easier for the fare cheats.
With a smartphone app called "CheckMyMetro", users can locate where the ticket enforcers are working at any given time in Paris, or in the cities of Lyon, Lille and Toulouse in the centre, north and southwest respectively.
"We're leaders in Europe among those who think that committing transport fraud is okay," said Julien Damon, a French sociologist who teaches at the prestigious Sciences Po university.
He pointed to a famous photo of former French president Jacques Chirac jumping over a subway turnstile in 1980 as evidence of France's lax attitude towards buying tickets.
"In Britain, transport is more expensive and fraud is not so prevalent," he said. In Berlin, meanwhile, turnstiles do not even exist in the subway as passengers are thought to be so honest.
Overall, an estimated five percent of Metro riders in Paris do not buy a ticket, while in public buses and trams that figure nearly doubles.
Sociologist Alain Mergier said the French have "a very paradoxical relationship with the law and the state".
He said that while people in other countries may take it on themselves to respect the law for the good of society, the French believe the state is responsible for making sure the law is respected and that it is therefore not their personal responsibility.
"They also consider that public transport belongs to them -- if they haven't paid for their ticket, they are not stealing from anyone," he added, in reference to France's state-owned public transport firms.
But the sheer extent of fare evasion has the government worried.
Transport Minister Frederic Cuvillier has said that fare dodging costs France's state-owned railway SNCF some 300 million euros (400 million) a year.
"For the RATP (the state-owned Paris train, subway, tram and bus operator), it's 100 million euros," he said.
Earlier this month, Pierre Mongin, head of the RATP, called for stiffer fines to fight fare evasion.
Authorities would also have to boost the numbers of ticket checkers as well as their mobility, all of which costs money.
According to the GART association, which works to develop public transport in France, ticket sales cover only 25 percent of operating costs.
As a result, some 20 French cities have simply opted to make transport free... thus eradicating the cost of ticket checkers.
Since the large southern city of Aubagne did so four years ago, ridership on public transport has grown by 170 percent while car traffic has dropped 10 percent.
"Public transport should be free like libraries, swimming pools, health, education and everything that is built using taxpayer money," said philosopher Michel Onfray.
The idea has some fervent supporters. Playwright Jean-Louis Sagot-Duvauroux wrote online that free transport "abolishes fraud and checks".
"It's a revolution", he said. Another very French concept.