On Monday, the French legislature passed a radical new law making it illegal to be part of a "gang" – if it's one that has been or may be violent.
The move is part of a recent law-and-order initiative by President Nicolas Sarkozy that the French palace is tying to new forms of youth crime at a time of economic crisis. Earlier this month, France banned the wearing of masks during public protests.
The new antigang law says that anyone identified with a group, formal or informal, known by police to have committed criminal acts, or is intending to, may be subject to a three-year sentence or a 45,000 euro (US$63,000) fine.
Lawmakers on the left and a wide swath of French writers have attacked the law for crudity, for vagueness in defining what constitutes a gang, and for essentially criminalizing intent among persons associating with groups or gangs identified as culpable, even if they have not participated in illegal behavior.
The new measure allows police to make arrests of known gangs, but also in cases of spontaneous outbreaks of violence where gangs or mobs form quickly.
A compromise amendment to arrest only gangs already identified, or having a "structured" identity, was not adopted. But the new law does include measures for first-time offenders to enter community service programs.
The proximate cause of the law dates to a March 10 incident in Saint Seine Denis, a Paris suburb, of gang rivalry – possibly over a girl. A knife-wielding crowd entered a high school in session, and sought out and beat a student with iron bars. Eleven other students and staff were harmed in a general melee.
In May, Sarkozy began to describe such behavior as part of a larger destructive social fallout of the economic crisis. "The worsening of youth unemployment ... creates further feelings of frustration and exclusion," he said May 28 at the Élysée Palace. "We have noticed in recent months the emergence of new forms of violence, which are profoundly traumatizing." He warned against "well-intentioned" lawmakers who do not understand criminal psychology, and of what he called naive "angelism" – the idea that people are basically good.
French Minister of Justice Michèle Alliot-Maire says the purpose of the antigang law is "not about harming liberties, but protecting people."
Critics claim the law poorly negotiates a host of gray areas between young people who get together, hang out, and act out pranks – and hard-core criminal gangs.
Michel Fize, a researcher at France's National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and expert on youth and gangs, describes the new measure as "essentially useless and potentially dangerous.... The sentences are heavy, and [it criminalizes] simply belonging to a group.... It's about the repression of intent."
Mr. Fize adds that the criminal code in France already has measures to deal with issues of association among "delinquents."
A former French official says the measure may fall by the wayside because France has scant monetary resources to implement far-reaching initiatives. Advocates say that even so, putting the law on the books is itself a warning and may give authorities new powers to preempt crimes.
As a former interior minister, Sarkozy instituted several "get tough" police measures in the French suburbs after rioting in 2005. He was elected in 2007 partly on a platform of security and safety by voters concerned about the rise of crime and new immigrant groups.
In the run-up to the election, an iconic violent rampage took place at the Gare du Nord, the train station that links London and Paris, where gangs often hang out. Shops were trashed after police struggled with a man born in Africa who had jumped over a ticket turnstile. Sarkozy blamed the opposition left's complacency on crime as a cause.