Foreign Parts: Paris

Tin-pot traffic policemen on the road to ridicule have their work cut out
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A few days ago a French bureaucrat came up with a brilliant (and cheap) idea for improving France's appalling road safety record.

A few days ago a French bureaucrat came up with a brilliant (and cheap) idea for improving France's appalling road safety record.

Fake gendarmes, made of tin, would be installed at accident blackspots to remind drivers that they should not drive a) too fast; b) while drunk; or c) both at the same time. To discourage motorists from vandalising or writing rude messages on the tin gendarmes, real gendarmes, it was sternly declared, would be hiding near by.

Why not just deploy the real gendarmes by the roadside and throw away the tin ones?

To answer that question, you have to delve into the bizarre psychology of the French state. For years, successive governments have wrung their hands over the number of road deaths in France (running at 7,500 a year, more than double the number in Britain, which has roughly the same population and total of cars). French transport ministers have constantly devised new gimmicks and shock publicity campaigns.

What successive governments have never done is the obvious thing: enforce the French road traffic laws.

In driving the length and breadth of France over the past five years, I have never once seen a radar speed trap; I have not once seen a car stopped for driving dangerously or too fast. I have never seen a random breath test. (They do happen but the police prefer the middle of the morning, when there is less chance of having to prosecute anyone.)

A survey of traffic behaviour in the Paris suburbs this week by the newspaper Le Parisien registered 58 cars passing through a set of traffic lights on red in the space of one hour. That is almost one a minute.

Hence the unintended symbolism of the tin gendarmes. The French state likes to pretend that it is tough on dangerous or drunken drivers; it passes tough driving laws; it prefers not to enforce them.

French drivers feel they have a right to drive fast and break the law. The last time I wrote on this subject, I received a volley of e-mails from motorists who denied there was any connection between speed and road accidents.

Even if they are unlucky enough to fall foul of the law, French motorists frequently find ways of avoiding a penalty. Politicians and local officials are constantly badgered to faire sauter (to explode or squash) traffic contraventions. They usually oblige.

French roads have become even more murderous in the past two months. In September, there was a 15 per cent increase in accidents and a 6.5 per cent rise in road deaths. The provisional figures for October are even worse.

Why? There is a presidential election next spring. The tradition is for newly elected French presidents to give a blanket amnesty for road offences. French motorists, knowing that the risk of a penalty has fallen from slight to zero, are driving even more outrageously than usual. Estimates suggest that the previous presidential election in 1995 killed 300 people.

Road safety campaigners asked President Jacques Chirac to promise he would refuse a general road amnesty if re-elected next May. He failed to give a clear answer.

The tin gendarmes have been a public relations disaster. They gave rise to what the gendarmerie calls "ironic and misplaced" comments.

The satirical TV puppet show Les Guignols de L'info showed the turbulent French rap singer Joey Starr (known for his distaste for the police) carrying a tin gendarme decorated with tyre marks. The puppet version of the rap singer complained that he felt cheated: he thought he had run over a real gendarme.

Such ribaldry, the gendarmerie complained, had ruined the deterrent effect of their roadside silhouettes. They were being returned to barracks. However, the gendarmerie warned, they reserved the right to bring out the metal models again and deploy them "without warning".

Why not? Potemkin road safety laws may as well be policed by potemkin gendarmes.