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Saturday, 5 February, 2000, 21:33 GMT
French police in time warp?

police Police reconstruct Isabel Peake's murder

By Hugh Schofield in Paris

Anyone with a nostalgic relationship with France will have often indulged their prejudice re-reading the classic Maigret novels of George Simenon.

Set in a timeless Paris of rain-washed streets and down-at-heel corner bars - where the patron can be relied on to have spotted the man in the wet mackintosh finishing his Ricard just before the murder of the shop-girl on the sixth floor - the crimes they record are intimate and unglamorous.

And presiding over them is the intimate and unglamorous Inspector Maigret - to be found, when not rushing back home at lunchtime for a boeuf en daube cooked by his devoted wife, disappearing behind a cloud of pipe smoke in his dingy office at the prefecture.

Maigret's philosophy

The curious thing about the Maigret stories is their lack of excitement. There are no clever plot twists. Often the criminal is obvious from the start.

Where they excel is in the routine of policing - the stakeouts and the grillings, the endless questioning of witnesses, and the waiting.

Maigret's philosophy is that crime will out
Maigret's philosophy is that crime will out. The legwork gets done, and some time in the last 20 pages the murderer makes his mistake - and the game is up.

As a fictional character, Maigret's clear-up rate is 100%, so perhaps it is slightly unfair - but the recent series of abject blunders by the French police, culminating in the Rezala case, has brought him to my mind.

It set me thinking: Have these failures been caused by ignoring the Maigret philosophy, or - perversely - by following it too closely?

A Maigret time warp

photo-fit Police: Unwilling to distribute photo-fits
In other words, are today's French police to be accused of a lack of Maigret's rigour and discipline, or are they not perhaps stuck in some kind of Maigret time warp, where only the Maigret methods are allowed, and modernity is a dirty word.

The failure to arrest Rezala in December was astoundingly bad policing.

There had been a breakthrough - the murder of another woman on a train led to the suspect's almost immediate identification.

But because of an abysmal lack of co-ordination, it was nearly a whole day before police called at his home in Marseille. As a result they missed him. A few hours earlier they would have found him asleep in his bed.

A series of mishaps

Another recent story has been the disappearance of a doctor, suspected of killing his wife then taking off with his two children onboard a sailing boat.

There were sightings in the Isle of Man and the Hebrides, but when French police went to Scotland, they were forced to spend a useless weekend shut up in their hotel.

Why? Because they had failed to take the basic step of notifying the authorities. The trail went cold.

Three years on we are still no nearer an arrest
Then there was the Guy George case - a suspected serial-rape killer, whose arrest was delayed by many months, during which at least one woman was killed, because of a failure to spot crucial DNA evidence.

And finally of course there is the series of mishaps that followed the murder of the Cornish schoolgirl Caroline Dickinson in 1996.

First a vagrant was triumphantly presented as the killer, when elementary work would have put him in the clear. And then there was the delay of nearly a year before a photo-fit was issued, or any attempt made to publicise the search via the media.

Three years on we are still no nearer an arrest.

Organisational confusion

police near sign post and bus Police: Reluctant to embrace change?
Examination of these episodes leads to two conclusions. One is organisational confusion.

There are so many competing interests: National police, gendarmes, the examining magistrate, who under the French system supervises the police even though he has no police training, and lines get crossed.

When Rezala escaped from Marseille, it was because the prosecutor in Dijon appointed local detectives to run the manhunt, who couldn't give orders outside their department.

More significant, though, must be the failure to accept new ways of policing. The lack - still - of a DNA bank, the unwillingness to distribute photo-fits or to involve the media in the search for suspects - all these seem to me to be the hallmarks of a system bedded down in routine, and reluctant to countenance new ways of doing things.

Didn't move with the times

And that I suppose is the answer to the Maigret question. After all, for all his success, Maigret did not exactly move with the times.

About the only difference between the world of the first book in 1929 and the last 40 years later was the arrival of television. Otherwise he plodded on with his pipe smoke and his stake-outs.

What is clear though, is that their clear-up rate for murders is extremely poor
I am not one of those who believe that the French police make less effort to solve crimes where foreigners like Isabel Peake are the victims.

What is clear, though, is that their clear-up rate for murders is extremely poor. And the main reason for that, I would contend, is a very French habit of mind, especially in the state sector: A basic unwillingness to embrace reform.

Maigret stands innocent of all of this: He didn't exist. But today's real-life French policemen and women need to move with the times.

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See also:
21 Jan 00 |  Europe
Arrest warrant for Isabel suspect
17 Jan 00 |  Europe
Hitch delays French suspect's extradition
10 Dec 99 |  UK
Justice waits for Caroline Dickinson
16 Sep 99 |  UK
DNA blow to schoolgirl's murder case
18 Dec 99 |  UK
French police launch huge manhunt

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