French drivers take a free ride on coming election

Since de Gaulle, newly inaugurated leaders have given brief amnesties for minor violations of the law.

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My parents looked offended when I reminded them, during their recent visit here, that they had to be careful when crossing the road.

"We're not that old!" my mother retorted. "But the presidential elections are next month!" I tried to explain.

Their look of hurt turned to one of puzzlement.

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Strange as it sounds, careless driving and political campaigns are connected in France. For several months, motorists here have been driving more recklessly than usual – because the two main presidential candidates have both promised to uphold the tradition of pardoning minor traffic offenses, if elected.

So drivers are tearing up parking tickets and breaking a few more serious rules. A recent survey in the Paris suburbs by the newspaper Le Parisien showed that 58 cars ran red lights in a one-hour period – almost one violation a minute.

The irony is that, in this year's election, law and order is one of the top issues. But with leading candidates President Jacques Chirac and Lionel Jospin running neck and neck in polls before the first round this weekend, every ballot counts. And many of those voters are behind a wheel. After skirting the issue for months, the two men have pledged to keep the custom of granting a brief period of amnesty for motorists' misdeeds.

First introduced by Charles de Gaulle in 1965, the presidential amnesty has been repeated – albeit in various forms – by newly elected presidents ever since. In 1981, after François Mitterrand was inaugurated, the prison population fell by more than a fifth in two months. Chirac was less generous after his 1995 election win, but he still amnestied anyone serving a prison sentence of under three months, and forgaveevery traffic fine under 5,000 francs ($680).

This year, Chirac said he would exclude from the amnesty all traffic offenses that are liable to endanger lives – but didn't make it clear what that means. In 1995, his amnesty covered such things as failing to wear seat belts and exceeding the speed limit by up to 25 m.p.h. Jospin said he would not support an amnesty for serious traffic violations and those resulting in points against a driver's license. Many motorists are interpreting that to mean "speed at your own risk, but park wherever you like."

Road-safety advocates say the promise of an amnesty makes France's roads – already some of the most lethal in Europe with 8,078 people killed in 2000 – more dangerous than ever. The fatality figure is double that of Britain, for example, which has about the same population and number of vehicles. According to the National Federation of Transport Users, the last two French elections resulted in an extra 750 road deaths.

Government officials say it is impossible to trace a direct correlation between the elections and road fatalities, but acknowledge that the promise of a pardon does little to promote safety.

Although no one is certain which violations will be forgiven this year, most are convinced that all parking tickets will be declared null and void.

As a result, France's city streets are clogged up with haphazardly parked cars, the parking meters stuck on "expired." The mayor of one town has even sent his parking-ticket personnel on an extended holiday.

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