The myth of the great French detective

The number of Britons murdered in France is higher than we thought. But that's not the whole story
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It is a truth universally acknowledged (by the British press) that British visitors to France are murdered with great regularity and that their murderers are rarely found. It goes without saying - which is why we say it again and again - that the French police and justice system is a shambles. Inspector Maigret is dead; Inspector Clouseau rules. He is certainly always assigned, with a Gallic shrug, to any case involving a dead Briton, if any attempt is made to solve such cases at all.

There is a startling and depressing figure which appears in all British newspapers, with slight variations. Something between 20 and 27 British people have been murdered in France in the last 22 years; only one or two of their murderers have ever been caught. There is no official source for such figures. The British Government cannot confirm or deny them. The French justice ministry does not classify murders by the nationality of the victims.

The figures are cock-eyed. With a little research, I have identified four murders of Britons in France in the last five years alone which are never included in the standard British press lists. In all cases, the murderer has been convicted or a suspect is awaiting trial.

The standard list, copied from one newspaper to the next, is a tragic document and no testament to the efficiency of French policing. But it is woefully incomplete. It consists only of "newspaper murders" - in other words, those killings which have made newspaper headlines because they were especially lurid or tragic, or because they have not been solved.

They include two recent events - the murders of 13-year-old schoolgirl Caroline Dickinson and 54-year-old businessman Roderick Henderson - in which the authorities undoubtedly acted with great incompetence in the early stages of the inquiries. They also include the horrific attack on a 20-year-old student, Isabel Peake, who was pushed from an express train near Chateauroux three weeks ago.

The French authorities in the Indres departement in central France are investing enormous resources in investigating what is, by its nature, an extremely difficult case. It was finally established that Isabel Peake was murdered only a week ago. A nationwide appeal for witnesses has been launched, including an appeal on the Internet, for the first time in France.

The French are, nevertheless, being lampooned in some British newspapers because they have not yet caught Peake's killer. The timing of such criticism is no coincidence. There has been a kind of flash-over effect from the beef dispute. While we are bashing the French, what about all those dead British tourists? Why is it that the French police never catch anyone for murdering a Briton? Bring out the old list as Exhibit A.

Taking the last five years alone, it is usually alleged that three British citizens - Caroline Dickinson, Roderick Henderson and Isabel Peake - have been murdered in France and that none of the culprits have been found. A truer figure would be seven murders, of which four have been solved.

Have you ever heard of Desmond Dougherty? Or Graham Anderson? Or George Kawalko? Or Peter Black? All of them were Britons who were murdered in France in the last five years. In Mr Kawalko's case, the culprit has been convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison. In the other three cases - all of which happened in the last 16 months - suspects have been arrested and are awaiting trial.

None of these cases were reported in Britain because they were not considered newsworthy: Mr Dougherty was a middle-aged man, attacked in a Paris hotel in January and his suspected killer was rapidly found; Mr Anderson, 57, was murdered in south-western France in August in what appears to have been a domestic crime; Mr Black, 80, was killed in his bath in Mondragon, near Avignon in June of last year and a Polish itinerant is in prison awaiting trial for his murder. Mr Kawalko was murdered in southern Alsace in 1995 by a homosexual prostitute, since convicted of the crime.

The likelihood is that there have been many more murders of Britons in the last 20 years: obscure or rapidly solved murders that, for one reason or other, did not attract press attention. The justice ministry in Paris has promised to try to produce a more accurate list. Officials at the ministry, confronted with the traditional British "list of shame", make two other observations. Three of the "murders" that are usually listed are actually suspicious deaths, in which murder was never proved. In one of the allegedly "unsolved" cases, listed by The Daily Telegraph last week - the 1993 death of James Tolley - two women were convicted in 1997 and jailed for 10 years.

Judging by the relative number of media murders and obscure murders in the last five years, it would be reasonable to assume that there have been about 40 murders of Britons in France in the last two decades. Half were solved and we never heard of them for that reason. This still leaves 19 unsolved murders since 1977: hardly a proud record. But it should be considered alongside two other facts.

The first is the huge number of British visitors to, and residents in, France. The standard press list works out at roughly one Briton murdered in France a year; the actual figure may be more like two a year. If you consider that seven million Britons go to France each year and that there are 100,000 British residents, your chance of being murdered on a visit to France is about one in 3.5 million. At home, it is more like one in 300,000.

The second point is the poor French clear-up rate for murders (some 75 per cent compared to 90 per cent in Britain). Since domestic murders - almost always solved - make up more than half the total, the detection rate for non-domestic murders of all kinds in France is less than 50 per cent.

Professor Michele Rassat, professor of criminology at the University of Paris, calls the 30 per cent clear-up rate for all crimes a "national disgrace". She blames the fact that the Police Nationale (policing big towns and cities) and the Gendarmerie (policing the countryside) are "utterly demoralised" by underfunding, understaffing and lenient sentencing. "There is a kind of depression in the French policing community, which mostly affects small crimes, but has its effect also on the amount of energy they put into detecting crimes as serious as murder," she says.

Other criminologists claim that there is something about the structure and traditions of the French judicial and policing system which impedes the patient and painstaking detection of "awkward murders". In the British system, the police work essentially alone. They have trained detectives, with enormous local knowledge. The emphasis is on speed in gathering witnesses and facts. There has been a much more rapid acceptance of new scientific methods, such as DNA tests and DNA identity banks.

In the French system, the inquiry is usually run by an examining magistrate, with the police or gendarmes acting as the footsoldiers. The emphasis is on finding a suspect and obtaining a confession. There are often conflicts of personality between magistrates and police. The acceptance of modern methods has been sluggish (there is still no DNA criminal identity bank, although one is being created).

Many of the unsolved murders of Britons in France are rural killings. Patrick Mignon, another criminologist, says that there is growing anxiety in France about the suitability of the rural police force, the Gendarmerie - a military force whose officers are trained in the French equivalent of Sandhurst - for the kind of intuitive and slogging police work involved in solving murders.

Gendarmes are often extremely competent at classic police work; sometimes not so. They are moved about the country frequently; they live in barracks; their relationship with the local community in which they are stationed is often strained or poor. But all these factors apply to the murders of French people, as well as foreigners.

The French detection rate for murders of Britons in France is appalling - but it's not so bad as is usually claimed. If domestic crimes are excluded, it is roughly the same for the detection rate for the murders of French people in France. The British press complaints may be exaggerated; but why does the French press complain so little?