PARIS, Sept 15 (Reuters) – Britain’s « happy slapping » craze of gratuitous attacks on the public has come to France, helping fuel a rise in violent crime, the head of the country’s crime statistics body said on Friday. Alain Bauer told Reuters the upsurge could also be linked to the popularity of violent video games and a desire by gangs to mark out their territory and set up police « no-go areas ».
Crime is expected to be a major battleground in 2007 presidential elections with the conservative frontrunner, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, likely to come under fire for failing to turn the juvenile crime tide. Sarkozy hopes a crime bill now going through parliament will help tackle the problem, but has faced criticism from the left for his plans to spot possible delinquents at a very early age.
Bauer, whose National Delinquency Observatory reported a 6.7 percent rise in violent crime year-on-year in August, said muggings and reports of domestic violence have both increased, but the jump in motiveless assaults marked a new trend. « The most important change in the history of crime in this country is violence without intent to steal anything, just for fun, ‘happy slapping’, » he said. « It’s mainly imported from Britain … where it’s almost a big game. But it’s just a part of it. » « Happy slapping » is a fad in which attackers pick on unsuspecting members of the public while an accomplice films the assault, typically on a mobile phone.
In one case this year a teacher in the Paris region was attacked in the classroom. In another, a student was gang raped on camera, and the pictures quickly spread around the school. « With this kind of violence, the victim and the perpetrator are the same. They look alike … have the same origins, they live in the same neighbourhood, » Bauer said. « The poor are not attacking the rich. It’s much more of a way of controlling the local area and to say: ‘we are the leaders’. It’s much more of a tribal issue. »
Some critics have blamed the depiction of violence in films and television for the rise in attacks, but Bauer said violent video games were a more likely culprit, since players ran the show and might then act out their gaming fantasies in real life. « It’s much more accurate about video games, because you cannot control the movie. You see weapons, you see blood, you see death, you cannot change it. In video games you can. There are no consequences, » he said.
A surge in attacks on police was not only due to three weeks of riots in poor suburbs last year but part of a broader trend, linked to a rise in gang-style culture. « The interior ministry’s desire to go back to places where police were not going any more is part of this surge, » he said. The left has attacked Sarkozy’s new anti-crime bill for its tougher punishments on young offenders — a reaction to their perceived impunity from prosecution after last year’s riots.
But Bauer said that while Sarkozy’s bill was imperfect, a focus on the family could provide a response by reducing domestic abuse and detecting earlier the childhood violence that significantly increases the risk of teenage delinquency.
However, France needed to work harder on finding active solutions rather than using the big stick of law and order: « Most of it is a society issue, not a police issue. »