Wine on the list as crooks strike rich seam in urban underbelly

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Leafing through the local paper on a recent visit to Britain was a depressing experience. North-west London came across as a non-stop crime area: from muggings to burglaries to robberies with violence, no one and nothing seemed sacred. What a contrast to Paris, where street crime seems mostly to stop at pickpocketing, and burglary is banished to the no-go areas of housing estates.

How wrong can you be. A few days later, safely back in Paris, I received the following phone call at the office: "The good news is that the electrician has fixed the socket; the bad news is that all the wine has been stolen. All the caves have been ransacked."

Like a great many blocks of Paris flats, our's has a basement with a corridor of caves, one or two allocated to each flat. As well as the bits and pieces of wood, paint and carpet you might one day need, the cave holds bicycles and skis and, of course, the wine. Even in Paris, people tend not to buy a bottle or two to go with dinner, but to fetch one from the many dozen bought at the vineyard and stored in the cellar.

These cellars offer rich pickings. However they are secured, they will always be vulnerable. Burglars, unless they are very unlucky, can have the basement to themselves for hours on end. Our burglars apparently started their pillage with the first-floor offices on Sunday night, then came back the next evening for the caves.

The locks of each cave door were brutally smashed. The only mystery is how the felons were able to leave with all their booty, though the fact that the Renault Espace is now the most stolen car in France may go some way towards the explanation. The elderly concierge, locked away in her ground-floor cubbyhole, swears she heard and saw nothing. "It's the drug addicts," she said. "Bound to be. What is this city coming to."

For the police and insurance company, this was a routine crime. "So it was the cave, was it,' said the friendly officer at the local police station, courteously helping Madame with her inadequate crime vocabulary and apologising for not being computerised and having to fill out the form in long-hand.

"Smashed the locks did they? Were the doors reinforced? Well, it doesn't make much difference actually; they just spring them anyway." No, they would not be coming to investigate; no point.

Cave robbery is a city crime of utter banality. It teaches you to keep all your wine receipts for the insurance (the French do, for years afterwards), it keeps the locksmiths in business, and it goes entirely unreported.

Crime in the countryside is a different matter. First, despite a common view to the contrary, it does it exist. Second, much of what is reported is violent and revolves around firearms. Some weeks it seems that almost every other Frenchman has been killing his wife/mistress/neighbour/rival, let alone the burglar. The annual slaughter of turtledoves, which goes on at this time of year despite being outlawed by the EU, appears a detail beside the human carnage.

The two phenomena, though, are not entirely unconnected. The prevalence of hunting in rural France means that many people have a weapon to hand in an "emergency". It was a hunting rifle that a 16-year-old boy used to murder 15 people in the Var last summer. Earlier this month, one man used his to kill his neighbour after a decades-long feud over a shared access road: the deeds said it could be used only for horses and ploughs; the victim had taken his tractor down it.

But the saddest case is perhaps that of 68-year-old Pierre Brunet, the mayor of a village called Saint-Aoustrille in western France, and the truth of what happened will probably never be known.

Brunet was out on a duck-shoot one winter Sunday with his wife and friends, in the course of which he shot his wife dead. Within the week, he found himself in custody, accused of his wife's murder.

He protested his innocence, insisting that it was a terrible accident: the dog had distracted his attention, the gun had gone off, and his wife had tragically been in the firing line. You can almost hear the cynical gendarme's response: "They all say that - put him inside".

With local newspaper reports making veiled references to long-standing village gossip about the mayor and his wife, Brunet stayed in custody. Last month, it was reported that he had died in his cell "by his own hand", still protesting the injustice of his fate.