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Crime tops French election issues

Jospin Chirac
Polls show voters think Jospin (left) is most capable of reducing crime, though he and Chirac (right) share a plan for a new government office on crime  

By CNN Senior Correspondent Jim Bittermann

PARIS, France (CNN) -- A drug bust in historic Montmartre is probably not the image that springs to mind when you think of Paris nightlife.

But it is becoming more and more representative of new realities in France -- criminal realities that have become the No. 1 issue in the presidential election campaign.

It's come as a shock to many who live here, including Patricia Ochs. Her foot was broken in three places earlier this month when a gang of young people assaulted her and two companions in an apparent attempted purse snatching at 8 p.m. in a relatively safe part of Paris.

"It is a great surprise," says Ochs. "I've always told people when they come here to visit, you may have to worry about pickpockets and thieves but you rarely ever have to worry about harm to your bodily person."

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Crime in France is growing with startling speed. The overall crime rate jumped 8 percent last year after a 5 percent increase the year before.

While the incidence of murder and rape is still far lower here than in a country like the United States, other kinds of crime now occur more frequently here than in the States -- especially property crimes like burglary and theft.

In the Paris region alone last year, there were three reports of crime for every 20 residents.

In some areas, like a Parisian neighbourhood frequented by drug dealers, ordinary citizens are so angry about government inaction they have taken it upon themselves to try to talk young people off the streets.

According to opinion polls, voters believe Prime Minister Lionel Jospin is the presidential candidate most capable of reducing crime.

But both Jospin and his principal opponent, incumbent Jacques Chirac, share the same plan to untangle confused police and court bureaucracies with a new government office to deal exclusively with crime.

Officials of a large police union like the idea, but they say the government must double the amount of money it currently spends fighting crime.

It's a drastic but perhaps necessary step, because those who study criminality say the French are particularly vulnerable. They have little experience identifying criminals in the making or handling the kind of crime wave they now face.

"Before they are 13 they start with easy crime, small vandalism on the street or shoplifting in a supermarket, and then they climb the stairs of delinquency," says Sebastian Roche, author of "Delinquency and the Young."

Stopping that process, voters overwhelmingly believe, should be the top priority of the next president.




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