Fearful French See Crime on the Rise

By Keith B. Richburg, Washington Post, Tuesday 21 August 2001; Page A12

Spate of Incidents Fuels Concern Country Is Becoming More Dangerous Place

PARIS, Aug. 20—A 27-year-old immigrant from Chad walked into a bank outside Paris from which he had been laid off. He was disguised as a woman, with a long black dress and a fuzzy wig, and carried two pistols. After herding employees and customers into a basement room, he hunted down the bank's financial counselor and shot him in the throat, then shot the bank manager in the head. He took several hostages to secure his getaway, and shot and killed a motorist who refused to give up his car.

The gunman was later captured, but his rampage just over a week ago left three dead and six injured.

Such incidents can happen anywhere—and shootings, sometimes involving disgruntled or laid-off employees, have become numbingly common in the United States. But in France, this and other similar incidents have added to a general feeling that this country, which prides itself on civility and culture, has become a more violent and dangerous place.

The bank attack occurred just days after another grisly murder riveted the public. A 17-year-old girl named Karine, from a small town in the Lorraine area in the northeast, had been missing for 11 days. A 23-year-old man arrested in the case told police he had accidentally hit the girl with his car while she was cycling, then panicked and hid the body. But the suspect's female companion later told investigators that the girl had been raped and killed and her body set on fire.

The Karine case exploded in the media just as the French were assessing the damage from a spate of violent youth gang attacks in the suburbs ringing several major towns and cities, including Paris. In one incident, on July 14, Bastille Day, some 130 cars were torched by young hoodlums in the town of Aulnay.

Tourists have not been spared. Pickpocketing and assaults against visitors have reached such alarming levels that the State Department, on its Web site, cautions Americans traveling to Paris to be careful. China has advised its citizens to be watchful because Asians appear to be frequent targets.

Opinion polls indicate the French are putting an increasing sense of insecurity at the top of their list of concerns. And crime has become the topic of many dinnertime conversations. During a nationally televised interview on Bastille Day, President Jacques Chirac mentioned rising crime as the country's greatest concern. People are scared, he said.

Chirac cited as reasons for the trend a lack of state authority and lack of political will to tackle the problem, a direct jab at the government led by the rival Socialist Party of Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. Chirac proposed a zero-tolerance policy much like that of Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York.

The statistics bear out the concern. In the first six months of the year, crime rose about 9.6 percent over last year, according to the Interior Ministry. And a widely circulated new report, drawing on statistics from the Interior Ministry and the FBI, shows the crime rate to be higher in France than in the United States.

Last year France recorded 4,244 crimes per 100,000 inhabitants, compared with 4,135 in the United States, where crime has been steadily decreasing. The United States still leads France in the number of murders and rapes per 100,000 residents, but France leads in violent thefts and some property crimes, including car theft.

For violent theft, France recorded 185 incidents per 100,000 people, compared with 145 in the United States. For simple theft, France had 2,588 incidents per 100,000 people, compared with 2,475 in the United States. And car theft was far higher in France, with 507 reported cases per 100,000 compared with 420 in the United States.

For many French, who view the United States as a Wild West-style place with an abundance of firearms, the new statistics are alarming.

For myself, and my fellow French citizens, we were used to reading about these things in the United States, said Alain Brunier, who heads the Europe and Middle East branch of a medical device and technology company. Now it's right here, in a country much, much smaller than the United States.

I feel 100 percent safer in Lebanon than I do in Paris, Brunier said. He described how his daughter's car was hijacked while she was opening her garage door, and how his vehicle was almost carjacked while he was driving in the capital. Paris has become a dangerous city. You have to be very, very streetwise now.

The fact that so many crimes in France now involve firearms—everything from pistols to machine guns to grenade launchers used in a spectacular armored car heist last year—raises questions about France's supposedly strict gun control laws compared with what is seen as a much more permissive system in the United States.

Under French law, any weapon of more than 7.65mm is prohibited for all but security personnel. Smaller weapons, such as pistols, can be obtained only by people with high-risk jobs, such as jewelry store owners, and only after a full background check. Hunters with a valid permit can buy hunting weapons, and sports shooters must be members of the French Shooting Federation. But authorities said there are lapses, and they are trying to tighten the rules.

We are using every legal way to limit the circulation of weapons, a national police spokesman said.

One problem for France is its central location. Many weapons filter in from Spain, Italy and Belgium, and also from Eastern Europe, where weapons have been plentiful since the outbreak of ethnic warfare in the Balkans. The stock here is low, unlike in the United States, a diplomat said. But the supply is only two hours away.

For the most part, however, guns have been used by professional criminals, or in dramatic attacks like the recent bank assault. The common tools of the street gangs in the rough and gritty suburbs are knives and metal bars.

Most muggings are committed by teenagers using knives or, more commonly, their fists to assault their victims. I've been mugged twice in two weeks, said Leslie Gladsjo, an American filmmaker who has lived in Paris nearly five years. I've lived in Paris all this time, and nothing like that has ever happened to me before. I've always felt totally safe here.