THERE were at least half a dozen of them, scuttling happily between the table legs of the restaurant. A quick glance through the open door of the kitchen confirmed the worst fears: a small, brown creature darting along a counter-top at lightning speed.
This was not an insalubrious dive, but a well-known Paris brasserie. When the problem was mentioned to the moustachioed maitre d', he opened his eyes wide in mock horror and said with heavy irony: "Really, Madame, rats – ici – are you sure?"
Paris, home to Rmy, the culinary hero of the Oscar award-winning animated film Ratatouille, is also home to an estimated eight million of his real-life relatives. There are four times as many rats as humans in Paris, according to the council.
The city, with its canals, river, courtyards, cellars and restaurants is something of a rodent paradise, experts say, and it is therefore not surprising that they are occasionally spotted foraging for gastronomic treats in some of the city's finer eating establishments and food shops.
This week the French capital launched a crackdown on its burgeoning rodent population, known officially as "dratisation".
A city-wide information campaign, followed by inspections, aims to reduce the numbers of Rattus norvegicus on the streets ahead of the lucrative tourist season. Residents have been ordered to get rid of the pests in their homes and businesses or face prosecution. They are even being encouraged to denounce neighbours they believe may not be taking the appropriate steps to kill the rodents.
"The campaign period – May and June – is chosen because reproduction is at its peak during this time," said Jean-Roch Gaillet, the head of veterinary services for the Parisian police. "And also because it is before summer, when we have the highest number of tourists," he added pragmatically.
"People walk past the boulangerie at the end of the day and they see rats or mice running around inside the shop, near the food, and they are disgusted," Mr Gaillet said.
"Paris is good for rats because of the River Seine but there is also a lot of stagnant water which is a very nice place for rats," he said.
"These animals are dirty, they carry germs and bacteria," Catherine Perry, deputy head of veterinary services in Paris, told the newspaper Le Parisien. "The main thing is they carry leptospirosis." The disease can cause fever, muscle aches and, occasionally, death.
One discount supermarket chain has had to close several branches this spring because the rodent infestation is so bad. At one branch in northern Paris, employees heaped dead rats and mice on the pavement outside to protest at their working conditions.
This year's mild winter meant that rats have started to reproduce earlier, Mr Gaillet said, making the rat-catchers' task particularly urgent.
The Paris council has created its own rat extermination department, Le Service Municipal d'Actions de Salubrit et d'Hygine, popularly known as Le Smash.
"Our primary task is to inform – some inhabitants don't know that they are actually obliged to fight rats," Mr Gaillet explained.
Those who refuse to carry out the recommendations – on cleaning up the area, correctly disposing of rubbish or closing up access holes, for example – face a fine of 150 per offence.
REHABILITATION OF THE RODENT
THE campaign comes less than a year after the film Ratatouille turned Rmy into a loveable hero, making it highly fashionable to keep rats as pets – there are now an estimated five million pet rats in France.
The film also made a little-known rat catcher's shop in central Paris, Aurouze, into a tourist attraction after it featured in the movie. Twenty one enormous rats, their necks crushed by steel traps, have been hanging in the shop's window since 1925.
The family business which was founded in 1875 has several of Paris' best-known restaurants and food shops as customers, according to Ccile Aurouze, 34, who runs the shop along with her brother Julien.