Crime in France

History and statistics

France has a similar crime rate to most other European countries and in common with them crime has increased considerably in recent years; the number of reported crimes has almost doubled in a decade: an estimated 18m offences are reported to the police each year, 5m of which result in an official crime report and 1.3m in legal procedings, 650,000 in court, although more than half of these cases are dropped.

Such figures have been compiled only since 2003, when the government set up the Observatoire National de la Délinquance, and available to the public only since February 2006 (go to www.inhes.interieur.gouv.fr  and click on ‘ OND’ and then ‘ Bulletins mensuels’).

Stiffer sentences have failed to stem the spiralling crime rate, and prisons are bursting at the seams with almost 60,000 inmates (around 95 per cent of them men) – nearly 12,000 more than their official capacity, some housing almost twice as many prisoners as they were designed for, although 28 new prisons are due to open by 2007 and the ‘occupancy rate’ is much lower than the UK’s: 88 prisoners per thousand population compared with 143 (and 724 in the US!). More than 35 per cent of those sentenced to prison terms manage to avoid them, and 1,160 convicted offenders are on parole, wearing an electronic bracelet. There’s no death penalty in France, where the maximum prison sentence is 30 years.

Violent crime in France

Although most crimes are against property, violent crime is increasing, particularly in the Ile-de-France. Mugging is on the increase throughout France, although it’s still relatively rare in most cities. In some towns in southern France pensioners have been the target of muggers and even truffle hunters have been robbed of their harvest at gunpoint. Since 2001, a security system called vigi-pirate has been in operation near schools and at the entrances to public and official buildings. Sexual harassment (or worse) is common in France, where women should take particular care late at night and never hitchhike alone.

The worst area for crime is the Mediterranean coast (one of the most corrupt and crime-ridden regions in Europe), particularly around Marseille and Nice, where most crime is attributable to a vicious underworld of racketeers and drug dealers. Marseille is notorious as the centre of organised crime such as drug-trafficking, money-laundering, robbery and prostitution. There’s a growing use of guns in urban crime, and gang killings are fairly frequent in Marseille and Corsica, where separatist groups such as the Front Libéral National Corse ( FLNC), Cuncolta Naziunalist and the Mouvement pour l’Autodétermination ( MPA) have become increasingly violent in recent years.

Thefts in France

Thefts are soaring (around half of crimes involve theft) and burglary has reached epidemic proportions in some areas (holiday or second homes are a popular target). Many people keep dogs as a protection or deterrent against burglars and fit triple-locked and steel-reinforced doors. However, crime in rural areas remains relatively low and it’s still common for people in villages and small towns not to lock their homes or cars. Car theft and theft from cars is rife in Paris and other cities. Foreign-registered cars are a popular target, particularly expensive models, which are often stolen to order and spirited abroad. Car burning has become a popular ‘sport’ among urban youth gangs. An average of 200 cars are set alight in various cities (especially Mulhouse and Strasbourg) every weekend. Other ‘games’ include driving without lights at night and shooting at the first car to flash its headlights!

Pickpockets and bag-snatchers have long been a plague in Paris, where the ‘charming’ street urchins (often gypsies) are a highly organised and trained bunch of pickpockets. They try to surround and distract you, and when your attention is diverted pick you clean without your noticing. Keep them at arm’s length, if necessary by force, and keep a firm grip on your valuables. Always remain vigilant in tourist haunts, queues and on the métro. Never tempt fate with an exposed wallet or purse or by flashing your money around and hang on tight to your bags. One of the most effective methods of protecting your passport, money, travellers’ cheques and credit cards, is with a money belt. Tourists and travellers are the targets of some of France’s most enterprising criminals, including highwaymen and train robbers.

Although the increase in crime isn’t encouraging, the crime rate in France – especially in rural areas – is relatively low, particularly violent crime. This means that you can usually safely walk almost anywhere at any time of day or night and there’s usually no need for anxiety or paranoia about crime. However, you should be ‘street-wise’ and take certain elementary precautions. These include avoiding high-risk areas at night, such as tower block suburbs, which are inhabited or frequented by the unemployed, drug addicts, prostitutes and pickpockets. Street people ( clochards) in Paris and other cities may occasionally harass you, but they’re generally harmless. You can safely travel on the Paris métro (and other métros in France) at any time, although some stations are best avoided late at night and you should always beware of pickpockets, who tend to snatch bags and jump off trains just as the doors are closing.

When you’re in an unfamiliar city, ask a policeman, taxi driver or other local person whether there are any unsafe neighbourhoods – and avoid them! Note that it’s a criminal offence not to attempt to help someone who has been a victim of crime, at least by summoning assistance.

This article is an extract from Living and working in France. Click here to get a copy now.

Further reading

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