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Rights Law For Criminals Sets Off Controversy in France - 2001-11-23

A law granting greater rights to suspected criminals is under fire in France. The law has sparked large demonstrations this week, and calls for a review by members of the governing Socialist Party.

Tens of thousands of policemen demonstrated across France this week for better pay and more government help to battle the country's rising rate of crime. But also on their list of grievances was a 1 1/2 year-old law that gives suspected criminals greater access to lawyers and other legal assistance during the first hours of their arrest.

Guillaume Balderon was one of the demonstrators. A policeman for five years in Paris, he attended a boisterous Wednesday afternoon rally at the city's Place de la Republique. Mr. Balderon said the new law forces policemen to follow procedures that require a lot of effort and time.

"We don't have enough time to investigate. With all the things that we have to do: First to get in contact with the lawyer, to get in contact with the court," he said.

Human rights groups, which continue to report alleged police abuses in France, have applauded the legislation. And its author, former French Justice Minister Elisabeth Guigou, argues it merely puts France on the same legal footing as other European countries.

But critics, including French magistrates, argue that it imposes heavy bureaucratic burdens on the legal system.

Police union spokesman Jean-Luc Garnier says these burdens ultimately benefit criminals, rather than their victims. He says his men now need more government assistance to be sure they are adhering to the requirements of the law.

Concerns about the law also appear to have divided the government of Lionel Jospin. Current Justice Minister Marylise Lebranchu announced Wednesday there was no question of changing the legislation. But other top Socialist politicians suggested they were not opposed to amending the law. Prime Minister Jospin has so far limited his involvement to ordering a study of the law. A report is due by December.