Finally, the French are looking into their mirror

DPA , PARIS

Thu, Feb 16, 2006 - Page 9

France prides itself on its republican ideals, embodied in the motto "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity," but its image as a land of openness, tolerance and solidarity is clearly suffering.

In the latest controversy, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy has said he would make public the results of an investigation into charges that police officers tortured suspects after a spate of terrorist bombings in Paris in 1995.

The charges were first made in a new book written by three journalists from the weekly Le Point, who interviewed five former police officers from the Criminal Investigation Department

The officers said that anti-terrorist police committed acts of torture, including electroshock and severe beatings, while interrogating suspects in the series of bombings by Algerian militants that left eight people dead in Paris and injured 200.

More than 30 police officers have so far been questioned in the investigation, but none have apparently so far corroborated the allegations, officials say.

The results of the investigation, Sarkozy promised, "will be published in detail. If there were errors, punishment will be imposed. If not, I will defend the honor of the police and go to court."

The torture allegations came just as the French daily Le Parisien made public the shocking results of a Council of Europe report on French detention practices and prison conditions.

The report uses terms such as "unacceptable," "shameful" and "shocking" to describe conditions in France's prisons, which it says are so overcrowded that it deprives inmates "of their basic rights."

The report, which was published yesterday, was based on a 16-day visit to France made last September by the Council's human rights commissioner, Alvaro Gil-Robles.

In perhaps his most withering criticism, Gil-Robles said that a detention center for asylum seekers and illegal immigrants located in the basement of the Palace of Justice in Paris represented "a flagrant violation of human rights."

"With the possible exception of Moldova, I have never seen a worse center than this," Gil-Robles said, and urged the French government to close it "immediately."

In addition, the report also slams France for its inadequate protection of "vulnerable [minority] groups" and its failures in the fight against discrimination.

Although French leaders are aware of the problem, Gil-Robles wrote, "there is often a gap between word and practice."

Sarkozy, who is an announced candidate for next year's presidential elections, said on Monday that "a huge investment is necessary to truly transform daily existence in our prisons."

The revelations come at a critical time for France and its government, which is trying to respond to the wave of riots that swept through the country's suburban ghettoes for three weeks late last year.

The violence, in which many thousands of vehicles and dozens of buildings were set on fire, revealed the glaring social divisions and inequalities in a country that has long prided itself as being the home of human rights.

The most recent criticism may finally force the French to regard themselves in a clearer and more realistic light.