- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 15, 2001

AVIGNON, France.
If there is one thing that stirs up the Gaulish soul, it is unfavorable comparisons with the United States which is one reason why a cloud of discontent has drifted over the sunbaked French landscape this summer. While the vineyards are as fertile as ever, the olive trees as elegant, the lavender as fragrant and the tourists as numerous, there is a chill of trouble in the air. Erupting corruption scandals on the highest French official levels may otherwise have been met with an eloquent shrug of the shoulder, but resonate when they are matched by exploding levels of street crime. How bad is it? It is so bad that according to international crime statistics, crime in France has now exceeded American levels. Americans accustomed to a certain snootiness from the French may take some quiet satisfaction in this state of affairs.
Crime, of course, comes in all shapes and forms. Every village in Provence has its secrets and feuds, like the case of one old man who rantingly attacked a neighbor with a knife because she yelled after him that he was smelly and dirty. Then there is the growing danger facing vacation home owners who may return to an empty house where everything has been carted off, including the bathroom sink and toilet bowl. In bigger cities, pedestrians find themselves facing gangs of roaming youths demanding their wallets and, in a new twist, their cell phones too. In Paris, the U.S. embassy reports record numbers of American tourists turning up at the consulate having been deprived of all their valuables.
While the United States still holds the dubious distinction of leading the world in murder and rape, zero tolerance policies in American cities have brought the violent crime rate down, while the French rate has soared. A comparison of FBI figures with statistics from the French Interior Ministry reveal that, on average over the past five years, for every 100,000 people, there were 4,244 crimes committed in France compared to 4,135 in the United States. In particular, it's the rate of theft and robberies that are pushing up the French figures. Of every 100,000 people in France, 2,588 were the victims of theft, compared to 2,475 in the United States. In robberies, France is well ahead with 185 compared to 145 in the United States. When it comes to stealing cars, Americans are mere slouches compared with French criminals who make off with 507 cars per 100,000 population, compared with 420 in the United States. Just in the past year, violence in public areas is up 41 percent over last year, and crime in the Metro is up 25 percent over one year ago. Handbags are being snatched and pockets picked at a rate 13 percent higher than last year.
The reason for this?Well, foreigners are the first to take the blame. Romanian youth gangs and other East Europeans are said to be behind much of the violence directed at tourists, but there is apparently more to it than that. The Chinese government's hand supposedly is showing. According to an article in Le Monde last week, Chinese efforts to gain the 2008 Olympics depended in part on an orchestrated Chinese smear tactic against Paris, a competitor for the Olympic bid. In Beijing, the People's Daily has warned Chinese travellers to Paris (not a large group, one would imagine) that Paris is rampant with dogs and delinquents running wild. Add to nasty Chinese propaganda the machinations of the francophobe British press, particularly the part of it owned by Rupert Murdoch. A recent article in the London Sunday Times invoked the reaction of British 18th century painter Hogarth, who upon landing at Calais was so horrified by the violence that he immediately returned to England without further ado.
The French government's response has been to promise 5,000 more police and other security forces on the streets and to slap a curfew on children under the age of 13 in certain "difficult" zones, which has led to charges of elitism and racism, given that these are mostly immigrant and economically depressed areas. Beyond that, a fiesty round of finger pointing is under way. Conservative President Jacques Chirac, gearing up for his re-election campaign, has roundly blamed Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin for allowing the situation to become "intolerable."
For Mr. Chirac himself, however, the real question is whether French voters will take their wrath out on him next spring. He is under suspicion for having received kick-backs on public works contracts and paying travel expenses for family and friends out of a slush fund during his days as mayor of Paris from 1977 to 1995. Resorting to the corrupt politician's last refuge, Mr. Chirac has refused to answer the questions of French magistrates on the grounds that to do so would hurt not him personally, but the office of the presidency, indeed France itself. Sounds familiar? Bill Clinton was singing the same tune not so long ago here. At least Americans put their delinquent president on trial, and their violent criminals in jail all of which has indeed improved conditions on this side of the Atlantic. Perhaps it is time the French learn a lesson from the Americans? When pigs can fly, as they say.

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