Paris: Problems of Punishment

A sharp increase in crime and resistance from the right have the government divided over whether to continue its program of prison reform

IN PARIS MÉTRO stations, few travelers stand at the platform’s edge to spot the approach of a train. One weekend last winter, two passengers were pushed onto the tracks and killed. Such senseless murders might in the past have been treated as faits divers, grim stories that the French like to sensationalize, denounce, and then forget. But, reinforced by a report that 1,500 assaults were made on Métro passengers during 1982—75 percent more than in 1980— the public’s awareness of the murders has lingered. Métro riders (who take more than one billion rides a year) declared themselves in a recent survey to have been victimized ten times more often than the official rate suggested. Some observers of Paris see the survey results as a reflection less of unreported crime than of widespread anxiety.

A steady increase in street crime since the late 1970s has made fear of lawlessness a fixture of daily life for Parisians. The number of violent thefts in public places in all of France climbed an average of 13 percent a year from 1977 to 1981. By 1982, a Parisian was about as likely as a resident of New York or Los Angeles to suffer a break-in, according to figures from the French police and the Ministry of Justice. Although the incidence of personal violence, such as rape and murder, increased much more slowly than that of theft, the rate of armed robbery nationwide rose nearly 200 percent from 1972 to 1981, to a total of 5,400 incidents; and motor-vehicle theft has quadrupled since 1963, along with the number of cars on the road. Public indignation about l'insécurité became a potent political tool by the late 1970s, one that conservatives learned to use skillfully.

Blaming indulgent judges and elements of the immigrant population, the rightist government of president Valéry Giscard D’Estaing heightened the impression of criminality out of control. Giscard geared up his 1981 re-election effort by introducing in 1980 a controversial “Security and Liberty” law. Written by Alain Peyrefitte, then the minister of justice, the law demanded harsher penalties for many crimes, especially thefts; all but eliminated the judges’ traditional right to modify sentences according to circumstances; and permitted unlimited identity checks by the police for the first time since the Vichy regime of the Second World War.

A majority of the country’s magistrates opposed the law, as well as Peyrefitte’s interference in judicial affairs. Some of his law-and-order moves looked to them like unvarnished self-protection—prosecution of Le Monde, the country’s most influential newspaper, on charges of disrespect toward the courts, for example, or the use of a special Court of State Security to arrest as a foreign agent a man who threatened to publish details of Giscard’s allegedly suspect dealings in diamonds with a deposed African dictator. But despite opposition, including street demonstrations by judges, the judicial system on the whole yielded to Peyrefitte. “Security and Liberty” was accepted by Parliament in the winter of 1980, and the prison population (including pretrial detainees), which had averaged 31,000 from 1970 through 1977, increased to more than 40,000 by early 1981.

Unfortunately, the crime rate continued to rise at the same time. Giscard’s politics of alarmism prevented him from pointing out facts that might have dispelled the aura of menace—for example, that France’s rates of murder and armed robbery were at their worst just onetenth those of the United States, and were below those of West Germany and Britain. Voters seemed disenchanted with the Giscard regime in general, and in May of 1981 Giscard and Peyrefitte lost office to the Socialists.

The left had criticized Giscard’s lawenforcement policy as threatening civil liberties and promoting fear but doing little to reduce crime. Some professionals, such as judges in the left-liberal union (there are two main unions for judges; the other, to which two thirds of the judges belong, is conservative), argued that Peyrefitte’s program to incarcerate young first offenders in prisons where 60 percent of the inmates were repeat offenders seemed unlikely to improve crime rates.

Complaints that French administrations manipulate the courts are really complaints about the structure of the French legal system, with which Louis XIV replaced local and church laws in the seventeenth century; the existing penal code was instituted by Napoleon in 1810. All of France’s 5,476 magistrats, who include trial judges, prosecutors, and legal administrators, are lifetime civil servants trained at the same national academy, in Bordeaux, and they may serve in any or all of the three categories during their careers. Only defendants in the most serious felony cases, called crimes—which account for fewer than one percent of convictions-have the right to jury trials. The magistrats mostly prosecute, judge, and sentence defendants who are accused of less grave offenses, called délits, which make up an overwhelming majority of French crimes (not counting traffic offenses and the like) and include everything from writing bad checks to rape and most of the street crimes that have aroused the public’s anxiety.

In délit trials, defendants have surprisingly circumscribed rights. A defense lawyer, or avocat, has no access to his client for a period of between twentyfour and forty-eight hours after the arrest—the notorious garde à vue, during which, it is commonly assumed, the police extract confessions by coercion. A suspect caught red-handed can be tried and sentenced within twenty-four hours, in a forum traditionally called the Tribunal des Flagrants Délits. In Paris, 50 percent of délit trials are decided in “les Flags,” a stifling chamber in the Palais de Justice. Jail sentences are imposed in the vast majority of cases. Despite Peyrefitte’s accusations, the French courts have lacked neither the tools nor the disposition to punish wrongdoers.

ROBERT BADINTER, President François Mitterrand’s minister of justice since June of 1981, could scarcely be a more vivid embodiment of the Socialists’ change in approach. Formerly a star criminal-defense lawyer and the leader of the movement to end the death penalty in France, Badinter began his tenure with legislation doing away with the guillotine (“a monstrous anachronism”) and thus with capital punishment. Vowing to “raze the judicial Bastilles,” Badinter abolished a variety of tribunals and laws—such as the Court of State Security and the “anti-smashers” law, which meted out collective sentences to demonstrators—that Charles de Gaulle and his successors had designed to bypass standard legal procedures. He introduced legislation to repeal Peyrefitte’s law, which the Parliament finally passed last spring, with certain modifications.

Badinter has encouraged the wider use of alternatives to jail sentences for young offenders, such as the confiscation of their cars or the denial of privileges like check-writing. He has emphasized restitution to victims and work “in the public interest,” sentences that seemed effective in limited tryouts around the country. And he has promoted a revision of the 1810 penal code, two of whose goals are to stiffen the punishment for white-collar crime, such as fraud (which has increased 637 percent in ten years), and to assign legal responsibility for occupational hazards, deaths from which are twice as common as voluntary homicide in France (job accidents in the United States, by contrast, kill 60 percent as many people as are murdered).

With a consistent determination unusual in the Mitterrand regime, Badinter liberalized prison life. He abolished solitary confinement for entire sentences; he authorized, for the first time, visiting rooms without glass walls or bars separating the visitors from the prisoners; he granted inmates the right to unlimited correspondence (though prison mail is still scanned by officials); and he instituted a new Sentence Court to rule on conditional releases from prison, curtailing the power of prison administrators to act without judicial oversight.

Many of Badinter’s prison reforms may never get a full testing, however, because of resistance from the criminaljustice bureaucracy. “The blockage against Badinter is absolutely enormous,” says a prison social worker at Fleury-Mérogis, a huge maison d’arrêt just outside Paris, where inmates await trial or serve sentences of less than a year. It holds 10 percent of France’s penal population. The “blockage” against reform is formidable: top prison administrators often direct the unions of guards they supervise. This so-called “penitentiary lobby,” admittedly linked to rightwing political parties, has at FleuryMérogis, for example, kept inmates from using the open visiting room more than once every three months, and has conducted strikes for increased prison staffing, during which inmates’ privileges of receiving mail and seeing their lawyers have been curtailed. Some of the prisonguard unions, playing to the suspicion that Socialist policies will free murderers, have helped popularize the slogan “Badinter has emptied the prisons and filled the cemeteries.”

Badinter has not found many of the country’s magistrate enthusiastic about his reforms either. As a former avocat, he remains an outsider. “Nothing has changed on the daily level in two years,” concedes Simone Gaboriau, president of the left-leaning judges’ union. In the past year, judges confined more defendants before trial (there is no provision for bail), passed out longer sentences, and granted fewer early or conditional releases from jail than they did before Badinter took office. As a result, the prison population, which dropped to 30,000 in 1981, after Mitterrand freed more than 6,200 inmates in a traditional Bastille Day amnesty, has since risen to more than 38,000—nearly the level reached during Peyrefitte’s heyday. There are places for just 30,000 prisoners in the system; some of the twenty long-term prisons and the 144 shortterm maisons d’arrêt are at more than 200 percent of their intended capacity.

All the same, the police demonstrated fiercely against the government’s ”laxisme” last June, after the shooting of two Paris policemen. (The 92,000-man police force is distinct from the 75,000-man Gendarmerie, controlled by the defense ministry, which carries out judges’ orders, serves as the military police, and patrols national highways.) Led by prominent extreme-rightist politicians, a crowd of several thousand policemen, most of whom belonged to right-wing unions, marched on ministries, calling for Badinter’s resignation. Their fellows guarding the nation’s top officials welcomed them. “Badinter is deliberately trying to break the justice system,” a retired policeman said a few days after the demonstration, a remark typical of the moment. The Socialists denounced the event as a “seditious” challenge and dismissed the policemen who had led the two principal right-wing unions.

Although the police’s advocacy of strong security measures and conservative politics is popularly assumed, the standoff between the police and the Mitterrand regime was not inevitable. A majority of the force belongs to a socialist union, and 65 percent of the force voted for the left in 1981, largely in hopes of shedding their reputation as repressive pawns of Giscard. Unfortunately, the image fostered by the Socialists’ goals for the force is not much better. Interior Minister Gaston Defferre, who officially directs the police, has favored various factions within the ranks, according to his momentary political needs. Such transparent politicking has revived old feelings of neglect among the police: the starting salary remains just 5,082 francs ($635) a month, less than half that in the United States, and many patrolmen complain of continuing unpopularity with the public.

NOWHERE ARE THE police less welcome than in some of the low-rent, high-rise housing projects that the French call HLMs, situated outside many of the large cities. Poorly built towers rising from desolate streetscapes, the projects, most of which have been built by the government in the past twenty years, have become some of France’s toughest neighborhoods. In a complex called Les Minguettes, near Lyon, for example, the presence of the police for any reason may provoke rockthrowing. Delinquency has become pervasive in the projects, many of which have become Arab or African ghettos,

Lor many people, puzzling out why such environments breed disaffected and violent teenagers takes second place to hostility toward the immigrants who live in them. “The government opened the frontiers. Now we have ever-increasing pickpocketing, chain-snatching, and break-ins,” the police commissioner of a heavily immigrant district in Paris observes unblushingly. Extreme rightwing groups like the National Front denounce immigration and laxity as twin evils.

Even France’s old resentment of Jews finds its way into anti-crime arguments: Badinter, who is Jewish, has been denounced by a few rightists as “mold” and “foreign,” anti-Semitic epithets used by the Vichy regime. That immigrants are popularly blamed for crime (as well as unemployment) has inspired a broad group of public figures, including some leftists, to argue that France has reached its “threshold of tolerance” for foreigners, especially North Africans. The public hostility has been aggravated by the release of police crime figures showing that foreigners are arrested for 17 percent of the country’s robberies and 26 percent of its rapes; they account for 15 percent of all arrests, though they make up only 8 percent of the population.

A number of reports and studies, however, including one by the National Center for Scientific Research, have indicated that immigrants, an unusually large proportion of whom are eighteento thirty-year-old unattached men with little education and few job skills, commit robbery and violent crimes at a somewhat lower rate than their Gallic peers do. As a writer in L’Express magazine said, “We don’t forgive them for incidents that, committed by someone French, would be wiped away with a sponge.”

Forgiving wrongdoers is last on the agenda of a group called Legitimate Defense, which encourages homeowners to shoot burglars. “If someone really wants to try something rotten, let him enter, and then open fire,” says an official of the group, which defends people arrested for maiming or killing thieves. French law limits a self-defender to actions proportionate to the immediate threat; unless an intruder pulls a gun, firing on him is a crime.

Representatives of the group, which is headed by a seventy-five-year-old retired judge, François Romerio, have made appearances at murder trials across France, bringing victims’ relatives to court and publicizing instances of lenience toward prisoners. Claiming to have 100,000 supporters, Legitimate Defense has fought for reinstatement of the death penalty, which Romerio admiringly calls “the atomic bomb of penal law,” because it is final.

Despite damaging publicity from the mistaken shootings of neighbors and family members along the way, Legitimate Defense has won a considerable following in its campaign for wider permission to attack thieves, especially through its support for Lionel Legras, a car mechanic made famous as “the man with the booby-trapped transistor.” Legras fatally wounded a burglar of his summer home in 1976 with a radio that concealed a timed detonator. Having been convicted of manslaughter two years later and given a token sentence, Legras was acquitted by a jury in a second trial last winter.

In a 1982 survey by Louis-HarrisFrance, nearly two thirds of the respondents expressed sympathy for or approval of setting a trap—a result especially surprising from the French, who have historically relied on the state to take care of their problems. An equally large majority in other polls have wanted to see the guillotine in use again.

Mitterrand has resisted pressure for more repressive justice and has supported Badinter against his shrillest attackers. Other top Socialists, such as Defferre, the minister of the interior, have been conspicuously silent at key moments. The Socialist-dominated Parliament has departed from its traditionally liberal platform on justice, by retaining the Tribunal des Flagrants Délits under a new name and by refusing to repeal the provision of Peyrefitte’s law that allows unlimited identity checks. Policemen regularly conduct sweeps of immigrant districts, not only checking the documents of scores of dark-skinned people in cafés and Métro stations but also searching them head to toe. These sweeps are the kind of threat to civil liberties that the left once deemed unacceptable but that are considered by most to be normal practice today.

The compromises have not helped the government either to make its case for justice reform or to combat the exploitation of fear by the opposition. In fact, the right has intensified its attacks on the Socialists for their inability to reduce crime. Badinter has been admired— even by his adversaries, however grudgingly—for putting himself on the line in order to defend his policies. But in his campaign to limit imprisonment for lawbreakers, Badinter is strikingly isolated from other government policy-makers, which has led to speculation that he may decide to give in to pressure and leave office later this year, probably after he finishes his revision of the penal code. If no one tries to make him stay, the left will have signaled its willingness to run with the conservative tide favoring harsher justice.

—Daniel Cohen