Ask a French person what the city of Strasbourg is famous for, and they probably won't mention its medieval cathedral.
These days, they will likely say it's the town where the most cars are burned every night by disaffected youths.
And although Strasbourg led the country with 1,304 torched cars last year, France's other big cities follow close behind. The juvenile sport of car-burning has taken on such epidemic proportions that the police no longer respond to citizens reporting the blazing vehicles, let alone arrest the perpetrators.
Leading criminologists trace the rise in crimes in France to kids who have dropped out of the education system and are unemployed. They have grown increasingly resentful of the wealth that surrounds them, a result of the economic boom of the late 1990s. Burning cars is one of the many ways they take out their mounting anger and frustration.
It is little surprise then that law and order is promising to be the single most important issue in the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections, which run from April to June. The most recent opinion polls show that crime has replaced the economy as the top concern among voters.
President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin are currently the top favorites to win the presidency. They are the only politicians who have officially announced their candidacies, even though more than a dozen contenders are expected to challenge them.
In one of his first major campaign speeches last week, Mr. Chirac was quick to place the fight against crime at the heart of his bid before his rivals did the same. He announced he would implement a far-reaching program to fight crime if reelected, including the creation of a new internal security ministry and more juvenile detention centers.
Last year, the total number of crimes committed in France exceeded 4 million for the first time in the country's history, an increase of nearly 8 percent from the previous year. The largest increase was in violent crime, which jumped nearly 10 percent. Theft accounted for a record 63 percent of all crimes recorded, while the number of rapes rose by 13 percent.
France's big cities weren't the only places affected. Regions usually associated with tranquil village squares recorded some of the sharpest rises: 18 percent in the Loire Valley, for example.
Chirac's campaign team immediately jumped on the figures as evidence that the Socialist government of Mr. Jospin is soft on crime. Under the French constitution, power is divided between a directly elected president and a prime minister selected by the National Assembly, or lower house of parliament. Both the right and the left are hoping for a double victory in the presidential and parliamentary elections to put an end to the strained power-sharing arrangement that Chirac and Jospin have endured since 1997.
Jean-Francois Copé, one of Chirac's senior election campaign managers, said part of the president's "Sécurité" program would be to introduce "zero impunity" - ensuring that all crimes are punished. According to crime experts, only 6 percent of all crimes committed in France lead to convictions. Young offenders, such as those who burn cars, seem well aware that there is little chance that they will be penalized.
Sebastien Roché, a sociologist who has conducted numerous surveys on crime, welcomed some of Chirac's points, but said they fell short on fighting the causes of crime. He said France already has one of Europe's highest policing ratios - 396 police per inhabitant compared with 303 in Britain and 329 in neighboring Germany. Throwing more police - even better-equipped police - at the problem would completely ignore the underlying causes of French delinquency. Education, says Mr. Roché, should be the priority.
"Too many young people can't keep up at school, so they drop out, live on the streets, and turn to crime," he says, explaining that the French high school education exam - the baccalauréat - was too difficult and alternatives should be offered. "Locking these kids up is certainly not going to solve any long-term problems."
Police say the main increase in crime last year came from teenagers, with a sharp rise in offenses carried out by children under 13.
The majority are the children of North African immigrants, who live in ghettolike suburbs of large towns, completely cut off from the rest of French society. These "no-go" areas, where night curfews are commonplace, have become so dangerous in recent years that many emergency service workers, such as ambulance drivers and firefighters, refuse to enter the satellite towns for fear of being attacked.
Alain Bauer, one of the country's top criminologists, says politicians face an enormous task. He says none of the leading contenders for the presidency "have any idea how to tackle crime."
Like Roché, he says helping France's troubled and violent youth, many of whom are victims of violence themselves, should be the country's top priority.
Mr. Bauer believes many reasons exist for the rise in violent crimes other than car-burning vandalism. He says insurance companies are demanding that homes and cars be better protected. This apparently translates into criminal acts that tend to be targeted at individuals rather than property, which often means they are more violent in nature.
Last week, French actress Sophie Marceau was the latest high-profile victim of violent crime. Ms. Marceau, who is several months pregnant, was dragged from her car by five men who then drove off with her vehicle.
Bauer says the burglars of yesterday are the muggers of today. "It is easier to rob someone who has just withdrawn cash from a bank dispenser or to steal his mobile phone than to enter a house, which may have a sophisticated alarm system," he says. "So it is only natural that we feel a lot less safe. If you're personally involved, you're no longer just a witness."