Nicolas Sarkozy, one of the most popular presidents in the history of Frances Fifth Republic, ran on a platform that gave high priority to enforcing law and order. No small task: starting with the administration of Socialist president François Mitterand, which abolished the death penalty, successive French governments have failed to confront a steady rise in violent crime, aggravated by dysfunctional judicial and penal systems. Now Sarkozy, working closely with Justice Minister Rachida Dati and Interior Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie, is shifting the countrys treatment of criminals from sociological solicitude to punishment, and defending victims of crime vigorously. Two recent high-profile incidentsthe sexual assault of a five-year-old boy by a notorious pedophile and the outbreak of gang warfare in the streets of Parisillustrate both Sarkozys new approach and the obstacles that he faces.
Francis Evrard, a 61-year-old child rapist, was paroled on July 2 after serving 18 years of a 27-year term. This dangerous repeat offender, theoretically subject to strict limitations on his movements, was left to his own devices after his release. Before his first scheduled parole appointment in late August, he left his assigned residence, settled in Roubaix, and kidnapped and raped a five-year-old boy at knifepoint. The boys disappearance triggered an Alerte Enlèvement, the French version of an Amber Alert. But six hours passed before it was broadcast, the message having to move first through an elaborate bureaucratic hierarchy. It took another two hours to sift through 300 reported sightings and zero in on Evrards regular taxi driver, who provided the pedophiles address. Finally, at midnight, the police rescued the naked boy, who had been drugged and at Evrards mercy for ten hours. Evrard had raped the boy with the help of Viagra, prescribed by the doctor who had treated him for years in the Caen prison, where 75 percent of the inmates are sex offenders. The physician proudly admitted that he didnt want to know why the prisoner was serving time, because it might interfere with proper diagnosis and treatment.
Dati was on the scene the next morning to congratulate the police and the taxi driver, praise the effectiveness of the Alerte Enlèvementdelays and alland promise stringent measures against sex offenders. Sarkozy received the boys (Turkish) father and grandfather at the Elysée Palace. The media gave equal time to the government and to defenders of the status quo, and quoted supposedly understaffed, overworked criminal-justice magistrates, specializing in paroled prisoners, who said that tough new laws werent the answer. How about electronic bracelets to monitor parolees movements? Its helpful, the chatter ran, but terribly constraining for the person who wears it. All of this requires careful consideration.
Meanwhile, Gare du Nord, the biggest train station in Europe and the third-biggest in the world, has seen a recent outburst of gang warfare. Architecturally renovated to accommodate the Eurostar train, the station cannot shake off its underground culture of aggressive loiterers, drunken bums, and petty racketeers. In the middle of last springs presidential campaign, rumor transformed a 32-year-old Congolese turnstile jumper who had attacked transport authority agents into a black kid killed by cops. Hundreds of enraged youths at the Gare du Nord battled police for eight hours, smashing whatever they could get their hands on. More recently, at the end of August, three spectacular battles among young menarmed with machetes, clubs, iron bars, knives, and, in one case, gunstook place in Paris, two of them at the Gare du Nord.
The Sarkozy government responded with vigor. Alliot-Marie immediately convened law enforcement officials to implement better communication and cooperation. Paris prosecutor Laurent Le Mesle announced that gang warriors would be tried where they committed their crimes immediately, instead of being handled gently in their home precincts in the banlieues long after their arrests. Further, repeat offenders would receive stiff sentences, and minors would be judged as adultsradical changes from the Chirac governments limp response to the autumn 2005 riots, when few perpetrators were caught and most of those were released for lack of evidence.
The street fighting provoked the release of previously unreported data revealing a 29 percent rise in gang warfare since January 2007. Le Monde, still regarded as Frances newspaper of record, published a flow of politically incorrect information gleaned from a secret domestic intelligence report identifying the youths involved in the fighting: of sub-Saharan African origin, they imitate African-American gangs, want to turn France into the Bronx, behave with tribal loyalty and savagery, and reject society and its norms. These ethnic gangs fight both with and against Iraqi Christians, Chechens, and North Africans. Increasingly influenced by fundamentalist Islam, they harass shopkeepers who sell pork or alcohol, or just shake them down for money.
Additional details from official sources have drifted into the media, disturbing the neat picture of American-style gangs. In fact, the police are dealing with loosely structured ad hoc aggregates of excitable fighters drawn from a broad population. We recognize the contours of what I call the punk jihad riots of autumn 2005, as well as of subsequent bus burnings, ambushes against policemen, large-scale vandalism, and, of course, violence against Jews. (In 2005, by the way, Le Monde excoriated philosopher Alain Finkielkraut for attributing to the 2005 rioters the very ethno-religious qualities that the newspaper itself is now describing.) These gangsters have long fought in the banlieues; now their violence is spilling into the center of Paris.
Where were the journalists during that 29 percent increase in gang warfare, when ethnic tribes were hacking at each other at La Défense, the high-rise business district on Pariss outskirts? It had occurred during the presidential campaign, when the media couldnt get enough photo-ops in the banlieues with Ségolène Royal, Francois Bayrou, and a half-dozen extreme-left candidates surrounded by anti-Sarkozy youths threatening mass uprisings if the fascist was elected. The media and the Left, self-anointed guardians of human rights, high-mindedly oppose law-and-order legislation but cannot conceal their indifference to public welfare. Tough punishment for repeat offenders will produce hardened criminals, they say. (Arent repeat offenders already hardened criminals, by definition?) Stiffer jail terms will overcrowd the prisons. (Why not build more prisons?) The government overreacts to high-profile incidents. (Would it be better if it reacted slowly, or not at all?)
Yet five months after his triumphant election, Sarkozys approval ratings remain high, cutting across party lines. The voice of the people still cant penetrate the self-enclosed world of the French media, but Sarkozy seems to hear it loud and clear.
Nidra Poller, an American writer, has lived in Paris since 1972.