Crime and Politics

Suddenly, it's the hottest of issues--and linked closely to immigration

Thirty-year-old Frenchman Thomas Blard returned to Paris from a long weekend on Mar. 3. But when he finally located his Volkswagen Golf in the parking garage at Charles de Gaulle Airport, the car was in no condition to drive. It was sitting on a couple of luggage dollies, the wheels stolen, the leather upholstery ripped out. Blard, whose suburban Paris house was burglarized just months ago, looks at the bright side. "At least they didn't take the motor," he says.

Europeans, who used to cringe at televised reports of crime in the U.S., are now getting plenty of real-life exposure. Street crime is climbing by double digits in London, Paris, and Madrid, where ruffians wrest cell phones from idle chatterers and organized gangs channel stolen goods into a multinational network of resellers. The crimes aren't just economic, either. In Strasbourg, France, teenage hoodlums in the rough outskirts torched some 1,100 cars last year alone--and routinely attacked firefighters who showed up to douse the flames.

Now, crime is bursting into politics. It's the hottest issue in the French presidential race between President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and is shaping up as a key jousting point in Spain and Britain. What's more, crime--rightly or wrongly--is being linked throughout the region to the unsettling effects of immigration. "Certain politicians," says Italian Senator Massimo Brutti, "are creating an anti-immigrant hysteria." This could influence Europe's stance on crucial issues, from eastward expansion of the European Union to the battle against terrorism.

Immigrant bashing might win some votes. But it won't stop the larger force at work here. Globalization is turning once-close-knit European towns and cities into cosmopolitan hives of people in transit. These include immigrant construction workers from Eastern Europe and North Africa, expat software engineers--even al Qaeda terrorists. Plane-bomber Mohammed Atta, for example, helped organize the September 11 attacks from a base in Hamburg. Police from Barcelona to Brussels are straining to adjust to a Europe that's fast coming to resemble multicultural America.

Like America, Europe now faces pockets of entrenched poverty, where the schools are miserable and jobs scarce. These slums--Gennevilliers near Paris, London's Hackney--breed crime, which batters the poor far more than the rich. The longer-term challenge facing Europe is to spread opportunity into these areas of first- and second-generation immigrants. "We need law and order, but we also need to get them back into society," says Bertrand P. Collomb, Chief Executive of French construction giant Lafarge. But for now, politicians are focusing on enforcement, and they're filching from the zero-tolerance script of America's most famous crime-fighter, former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. "We should tolerate no level of crime," says France's Chirac.

In truth, European politicians of all stripes are feasting on the issue of crime. Why so? It's harder than ever for Europeans to campaign on economic issues. Most mainstream politicians find themselves buckled ever closer to a centrist agenda, bowing to powerful markets and budgetary constraints. That leaves scant wiggle room for bold initiatives. What's more, monetary and even foreign policy now sit largely outside national jurisdictions, resting at the European Commission in Brussels and the European Central Bank in Frankfurt. Crime, by contrast, provides a potent electoral issue.

Take France. As soon as he launched his reelection campaign in February, President Chirac blasted his rival Jospin for fostering permissiveness and allowing crime to go unpunished. Jospin denied the charge but admitted that he was "naive" for believing that his battle against unemployment would reduce crime. In fact, while unemployment has fallen from a rate of 12.5% to 9% during Jospin's five-year term, the jobs haven't reached the young and the chronically poor, who account for much of the jump in crime. Meanwhile, extreme-right-wing candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen appeals to crime-weary voters by pushing to bring back the death penalty.

The burning question throughout Europe is whether immigration contributes to growing crime. Italy's rightist government doesn't hesitate to draw the connection. Interior Minister Claudio Scajola says 64% of drug arrests last year involved suspects foreign to the EU. He credits Italy's 2.7% drop in theft over the last eight months to the government's vigorous battle against illegal immigration. Now, in a push for public safety, Italy's Parliament passed on Feb. 28 a preliminary bill to place tight limits on immigration.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's opponents charge that his government is using immigrants as scapegoats, feeding xenophobia in Italy. Much of the invective is directed toward Europeans from countries in line for EU membership, including Romania, and pieces of the former Yugoslavia. "[Berlusconi] doesn't distinguish between immigrants and foreign-run organized crime rings," says Giulio Calvisi, the representative for social affairs and immigration from the Democratics of the Left party.

The presumption that immigrants are guilty is becoming almost automatic. When 45-year-old Susi Cassini and her son Gianluca were murdered in the northern Italian town of Novi Ligure last August, the victim's daughter told police that the killers were a band of "Albanians or some sort of Slavs." Italy's Northern League party, along with angry mobs of supporters, immediately organized an anti-immigrant march. "Immigrants=Criminals" read one of the banners. Several days later, though, the 16-year-old Cassini daughter confessed to the murders.

A notable exception to Europe's woes is Germany, where reported crime has been tumbling since the mid-'90s. Still, polls show that Germans believe crime to be on the rise. Why? Anecdotal evidence suggests that theft and vandalism are plaguing the under-30 crowd. And young people, says Werner Greve, director at the Criminological Research Institute of Lower Saxony, "are less and less likely to report crimes."

In Spain, anticrime efforts have long focused on the bombers of the Basque separatist group ETA. But as Spain has prospered, it has attracted millions of immigrants, mostly from North Africa. Crime has risen 10.5% in the past year, and Interior Minister Mariano Rajoy is blaming the large "floating populations" of immigrants. Socialist Leader José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, in a 36-point crime plan, calls on the government to infiltrate immigrant communities to ferret out terrorists and gangs.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair took a page from U.S. President Bill Clinton and campaigned on an anticrime platform. Once in office, he added more than 1,000 police in London alone, and now takes credit for a 12% fall in British crime in the past five years. But while crime eases nationally, London is skidding out of control. There, street crime in January jumped a terrifying 49% from the previous year.

The Blair government is looking to technology for solutions. One pilot program that raises red flags among civil libertarians hitches electronic tags to youths out on bail. Sure, it's a simple response to a crime problem every bit as complex as Europe's fast-changing societies. But if it makes a dent in crime, Europe's worried voters aren't likely to complain.

By Stephen Baker in Paris, with Kerry Cappel in London and Kate Carlisle in Rome

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