France rounds up one-armed bandits
France is trying to sweep the country free of bandits. Those with one arm, that is. Slot machines. This is not the first time a French Socialist government has tried to weed out coin-operated games of chance. But unlike the attempt by the Popular Front government in 1937, this bill passed.
Le Bar des Sports is a typical cafe in working-class eastern Paris. Along with its numerous competitors on Boulevard Voltaire, it has replaced its traditional pinball machine with a brightly lighted electronic jackpot machine.
An innocent addition to France's famed ''joie de vivre''? After all, the only reward for hitting the ''jackpot'' is a ''free game.'' But that is not the entire story, Interior Minister Gaston Defferre says.
The machines sap the workingman's financial well-being while loading the pockets of gangsters, Mr. Defferre says. As a result, he pushed through a bill outlawing the manufacture, importation, installation, and use of games based on chance.
Because the games are concentrated in working-class areas, this money comes out of the pockets of those who can least afford it. And because there are no age limits on who can enter cafEs, children are exposed to the ''gambling.''
Popular Front socialists used such moral arguments when they first attempted to control jackpots in 1937. But the law that passed May 6 will be much stricter than the one proposed in 1937. It will forbid machines that merely give away free games, even at casinos, and enable policemen to seize the machines before starting legal proceedings.
The new law angers the machine owners and their customers. They charge the government is imposing its own puritan morality on the public.
''We just provide a little relaxation and distraction,'' Jean Faraut, president of the French Federation of Slot-Machine Manufacturers, said at a press conference. ''If the machines are outlawed, 10,000 cafes would have to close and 15,000 workers who produce the machines would be out of work.''
As for the Mafia connection, Mr. Faraut said, ''It's less than you would think.''
But police are not convinced. They say the games form one of the biggest centers of illegal activity in the country. And the legal appearance is deceiving, they claim: The player knows that by winning ''free'' games, he will be discreetly refunded in cash by the #afe owner. A quick walk along Boulevard Voltaire confirmed how widespread this practice is.
''Eh oui! Everybody does it,'' a cafe owner said. ''If you don't, you'll go out of business.''
The underworld hasn't passed up this chance to make quick money, police say. For an initial outlay of 12,000 to 15,000 francs ($1,600 to $2,000) to buy a machine and maximum annual taxes of 7,000 francs ($950), a jackpot can bring in 8,000 to 20,000 francs ($1,100 to $2,700) a month.
These profits, the police say, largely explain the recent proliferation of the slot machines. At the beginning of 1982, there were 15,000 of them in the country. Now there are some 55,000, generating an annual turnover estimated at around 13 billion francs ($1.8 billion).
The prospect of banning slot machines does not please most at Le Bar des Sports. ''Can't I lose my own money?'' a man asked as he put a 10-franc piece into a machine.
But not all the reaction was negative.
''I didn't want to install the lousy machines, but all my customers were going down the street to play,'' an owner explained. ''If everybody has to get rid of them, it would be great. The old flippers suited me just fine.''