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French drivers take a free ride on coming election

Since de Gaulle, newly inaugurated leaders have given brief amnesties for minor violations of the law.

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My parents looked offended when I reminded them, during their recent visit here, that they had to be careful when crossing the road.

"We're not that old!" my mother retorted. "But the presidential elections are next month!" I tried to explain.

Their look of hurt turned to one of puzzlement.

Strange as it sounds, careless driving and political campaigns are connected in France. For several months, motorists here have been driving more recklessly than usual – because the two main presidential candidates have both promised to uphold the tradition of pardoning minor traffic offenses, if elected.

So drivers are tearing up parking tickets and breaking a few more serious rules. A recent survey in the Paris suburbs by the newspaper Le Parisien showed that 58 cars ran red lights in a one-hour period – almost one violation a minute.

The irony is that, in this year's election, law and order is one of the top issues. But with leading candidates President Jacques Chirac and Lionel Jospin running neck and neck in polls before the first round this weekend, every ballot counts. And many of those voters are behind a wheel. After skirting the issue for months, the two men have pledged to keep the custom of granting a brief period of amnesty for motorists' misdeeds.

First introduced by Charles de Gaulle in 1965, the presidential amnesty has been repeated – albeit in various forms – by newly elected presidents ever since. In 1981, after François Mitterrand was inaugurated, the prison population fell by more than a fifth in two months. Chirac was less generous after his 1995 election win, but he still amnestied anyone serving a prison sentence of under three months, and forgaveevery traffic fine under 5,000 francs ($680).

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