France targets beggars

FRANCE’S conservative government is to hand police wide-ranging powers and curb the rights of suspects in a new hard-hitting bill on law and order. Civil rights activists and human rights groups called the new law "terrifying".

Details of the draft bill appeared yesterday in the respected daily Le Monde.

The bill targets prostitutes, foreigners, travellers, squatters and beggars, among others, and extends the power of the police to what Le Monde described as "unprecedented levels". It gives them wide rights to carry out searches and tap telephones and much greater leeway to conduct investigations without involving a judge.

It also reverses the previous Socialist government’s effort to enshrine the principle of innocent until proven guilty, analysts said. It extends custody periods, limits suspects’ rights to a lawyer and voids their right to remain silent.

"The project, which was worked out in utmost secrecy, is unambiguous: the government is putting the final touches to a new set of legislative reforms in the realm of security which are explicitly repressive in their philosophy," the newspaper said.

The bill is the work of France's new "security tsar", the interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, charged with leading conservative President Jacques Chirac’s crusade on law and order. French concerns over rising crime made security the number one issue in the country’s presidential and parliamentary elections earlier this year, driving the strong showing of the far right leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in the first round of the presidential vote.

Mr Chirac courted voters by with a law and order platform and a pledge to crack down on crime.

In its 2003 budget announced this week, the government said it would increase spending on police, security and justice, even as it cut back spending in other areas like education and employment.

The draft bill contains a series of measures to "protect the peace and public security" with harsher penalties and new offences. Squatters, for example, will risk six months in prison and a fine of 3,000 (1,900) for the new offence of "desecration of property". Until now, the only threat was expulsion.

Travellers, meanwhile, will see their way of life under threat as police are given wide ranging rights to confiscate their vehicles and suspend driving licences for up to three years for illegally parking on public or private property. They, too, currently only risk expulsion from illegally occupied land, after a court hearing.

Under the new law, begging would become illegal, punishable by a six month prison term and a 7,500 fine.

According to Le Monde, the law claims to target only "certain forms of begging", but the newspaper says the list "is so detailed as to be exhaustive", including begging in a group, accompanied by a minor or in the presence of an animal, causing the disruption of traffic or hindering pedestrians.

Prostitution is also targeted, with soliciting in order to "incite sexual relations", formerly a misdemeanour, now a crime punishable by six months in prison. Until now prostitutes were simply fined.

The draft law comes down especially hard on foreign prostitutes. Any non-French national found guilty of soliciting, pimping or drug dealing will lose their residency permit. Any foreigners on a temporary residency permit whose "behaviour represents a threat to public order" can be expelled.

Even those whose papers are in order would be forced to leave France for such "crimes" as taking part in a demonstration or disturbing the peace.

In the wake of Mr Sarkozy’s controversial efforts to lock up offenders as young as 13, the government continues its crackdown on young offenders, contrary to an older French tradition of trying to educate rather than punish delinquents. Under the new bill, a 2,000 fine is introduced for parents whose children regularly play truant while youths gathering in common areas of buildings also becomes an offence.

The French Human Rights League issued a statement yesterday describing the new draft law as "terrifying" for its violations of civil liberties. "It paints a picture of a society where policemen do the work of judges and can violate with individual liberties with full impunity, where lawyers are sidelined, where being poor becomes a crime and simply being a suspect makes us all targets for ever more invasive files," it said.

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