Law-and-order debate divides French government

When they were out of power, France's Socialists fought the country's conservative rulers over their strict law and order policies. Now in power, they are fighting among themselves about security tactics.

The squabbling, which has pitted Interior Minister Gaston Defferre against Justice Minister Robert Badinter in an angry public debate about increasing police powers, has shaken the government.

Not only has it highlighted doubts here about the Socialists' firmness in fighting terrorism and crime, but also it has left even normally sympathetic leftist voices questioning the Socialists' general competence in governing.

The dispute started when Mr. Defferre recently told a meeting of high-ranking police officials that he wanted to give police freer rein in carrying out identity checks and would allow them to shoot at suspects after shouting a warning. At present they can open fire only in self-defense when their lives are in danger.

Mr. Defferre's statements represented a U-turn from the previous liberal Socialist policy on security. While in opposition, they marched in the streets denouncing former President Giscard d'Estaing's toughening of the penal code as a return to the lopsided justice of the wartime Vichy regime.

Passed late in the Giscard term, the so-called ''security and liberty'' bill (Socialists christened it ''repression and uncertainty'') sped up the machinery of justice in many cases, stiffened court sentences, and gave the police wide leeway in making identity checks.

Justice Minister Badinter took office committed to repealing this legislation. While drafting a bill to replace it, he already has succeeded in putting a liberal imprint on the new government's security policy. The death penalty has been abolished, the state security court dismantled, and amnesty granted to more than 6,000 petty criminals.

It was no surprise, then, that when he heard Mr. Defferre's statements on the nightly television news, he reportedly ''couldn't believe his ears.'' The next morning he rebuked Mr. Defferre publicly, saying the interior minister was ''speaking only for himself.''

But Mr. Defferre didn't back down, and it became evident from talks with Justice and Interior Ministry officials that the two departments are deeply split philosophically on law and order.

Interior Ministry officials emphasize that the police need more powers to combat a rising crime rate and a recent spate of terrorism. They produce ministry statistics that show crime approximately doubled during the 1970s. And they say violent terrorist acts such as the explosion of a car bomb April 22 on Rue Marbeuf just off the Champs Elysees, killing one and injuring 63, graphically prove their point.

''Doing nothing like many Socialists suggest'' won't stop crime and terrorism , said Jean-Michel Belorgey, a Socialist deputy in the National Assembly, who in Janauary completed a report for Mr. Defferre on police reforms.

At the Justice Ministry, though, officials say the crime statistics are blown out of proportion and that giving police more powers will not stop terrorism. ''It will only deprive the people of their liberty,'' said Jacques Leaute, who is writing for Mr. Badinter a liberal security bill to replace the Giscard law.

Mr. Leaute argued that most of the increase in crime was in nonviolent house break-ins and that this was to be expected in a fast urbanizing society such as France. ''Crime is going up everywhere, in the developed and underdeveloped world,'' he said.

Such interpretations, however, provide little solace to the average Frenchman. A poll last year in the newsmagazine L'Express showed that after unemployment and inflation, lack of security is the Frenchman's greatest worry. Nearly three-fourths of those polled said they believed violence was out of control.

Mr. Badinter's reforming zeal does not appeal to this worried public. Neither , though, do Mr. Defferre's proposals appeal to many Socialists.

Party leaders generally sided with Mr. Badinter, and the prestigious left-leaning Le Monde wrote in a front-page editorial that ''a disquieting idea appears through the proposals of the interior minister: a France of 54 million suspects.''

In trying to resolve the imbroglio, President Mitterrand was on the spot. He is known to side philosophically with Mr. Badinter and his justice colleagues. When Mr. Defferre tried to sway him with crime statistics, the President reportedly dismissed the argument quickly.

But politically Mitterrand was reported to feel it was impossible to move too fast with liberal reforms. And finally, he had to satisfy both Defferre and Badinter to create the appearance of a unified government.

As a result, Mitterrand disavowed Defferre on the policeman's right to shoot, and reaffirmed his intention of repealing the Giscard legislation, but he also decided that the scope of identity checks should, indeed, be extended.

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