THE news media - particularly the electronic variety - are quick to report on increases in crime and terrorism, but much less eager to apprise the public of their decline. One country that has had spectacular success in the fight against both crime and terrorism is France. In fact, France is the only major industrial country that has experienced a major drop in crime rates over the past two years.
Only a little over a year ago, Paris was a veritable war zone, the target of a series of bombs planted by murky Middle Eastern groups. Publicity caused thousands of foreigners - particularly Americans - to cancel vacations, damaging France's large tourist industry.
Today the picture is dramatically different. The French responded to the terrorist attacks in the fall of 1986 by tightening border controls, introducing special courts for dangerous terrorist defendants, expelling suspicious foreigners more quickly, and making use of better international cooperation through informational exchanges.
The result is that public buildings and transportation centers in France are surrounded by highly visible security, including the latest in metal detection devices and robots programmed to detonate unattended packages. In essence the government engaged in an arms race with terrorists and now has the upper hand.
Too, more sophisticated French penetration of foreign intelligence agencies, notably those of Syria and Iran, enabled Paris to dismantle several terrorist groups, including the Committee of Assistance to Arab Political Prisoners and the network of the Tunisian terrorist, Fouad Ali Saleh. French police hold the two cells responsible for the death of at least 19 people.
Similarly, French agents scored notable successes in eliminating terrorist threats from within metropolitan France. The far-left Direct Action group was decapitated by the arrests of its leaders, Georges Cipriani, Jean-Marc Rouillan, Max Frerot, Nathalie Menigon, and Joelle Aubron. Among their more spectacular crimes was the murder of Georges Besse, head of R'egie Renault, the French automobile group. Likewise, 1987 was a banner year in the fight against the separatist Basque organization, Euzkadi ta Azkatasuna, many of whose leaders were detained and deported to Spain.
If ruthlessly efficient police work has been the key to suppressing terrorist attacks, the French have taken a more pragmatic approach in fighting ordinary street crime. Though the same arguments about the causes of crime are present in both France and the United States (with the left emphasizing social conditions and the right demanding that police be ``unshackled''), there has been a notable French consensus over plans to fight it. Though Paris already is one of the most heavily policed cities in the industrial West, 800 young auxiliary policemen, recruits doing their military service in the police, were added to regular police forces throughout the city.
More significant, the French have developed a national crime-fighting organization that concentrates on attacking the social conditions that breed juvenile delinquency. Every French town offers job training programs to deprived youths, and even subsidizes summer holidays for the poor. The idea is to channel troubled young people back into the mainstream of French society. The program has worked well enough that it has become politically sacrosanct for both left and right in the current presidential campaign. In any event, something must be working: Crime was down 10 percent in Paris last year, and the results for the entire country were the best since 1972.
There are several lessons here for Americans, who have never faced significant terrorist attacks, but whose ordinary crime rate strikes terror into many European hearts. The French have been successful precisely because their politicians have avoided being carried away by their own rhetoric.
The sterile, interminable arguments about gun control or ``getting tough with terrorist countries'' that go on so prominently in the US are not part of the political vocabulary. Instead, the double-barreled French approach is one of both compassion for the causes of crime and a ruthless attack on criminality itself.
Another lesson is that despite all the dramatic stories of one year ago, Western democracies do have the capacity to stop terrorism in its tracks without resorting to totalitarianism. The Italians showed this in their successful offensive against the Red Brigades, and the French showed it again last year. Indeed, the fabric of European democracy is stronger than many in the US media seem to believe.
In the future, sensational stories about terrorism or crime in another country should be consumed with a large measure of salt. Danger is a highly relative concept that varies immensely from society to society. One remembers Americans from Detroit or from Newark, N.J., canceling vacations in France because of fears of violence, when statistics suggest that they are in more danger walking down the street at home. Likewise, one recalls the daughter of a prominent Lebanese family who considered attending a university in the US. As her father explained, ``I decided to keep her in Beirut, because I couldn't stand to think of her in America around all those muggers and rapists.''
Kevin Michel Cap'e is a French-American writer who lives in Rome.