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Stunning move

France

Since September, France’s 20,000 municipal police officers have been able to carry Taser stun guns – an add-on to a decree passed in 2000 that allowed municipal police to carry firearms. Whether it’s a stun gun or .38 calibre revolver, local mayors have to apply for individual permits for each officer wishing to carry one. A full physical and psychological evaluation of the officer is also mandatory. Some mayors, mostly from President Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservative party, have jumped at the opportunity to sign up. Eric Raoult, the mayor of Raincy, a leafy suburb near the troubled suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, has requested the Taser, arguing, “When a violent alcoholic refuses to be questioned, you need a weapon that is incapacitating but non-lethal. No need to be left with a puddle of blood.” Others, such as Pierre Cohen, the mayor of left-leaning Toulouse, have ­refused to use them. “A weapon such as this one goes against the beliefs of our municipal team,” says a spokesperson.

Traditionally, the municipal police is a local force that only deals with directing traffic, handing out parking tickets and arresting people for drunk and disorderly behaviour, not with serious crime. That’s left to the Police Nationale and the gendarmerie (the police arm of the military). The amended decree could be part of Sarkozy’s plan to reform French police – a plan that already includes merging the national police with the gendarmerie in January 2009 and could mean greater responsibilities for local law enforcers.

Last year, a UN committee declared use of the Taser a form of torture that could lead to death “as shown by several reliable studies and by certain cases that had happened after practical use”. Amnesty International France has called for a moratorium on police use of stun guns (which it says have killed 290 worldwide). Taser responds to the criticism by branding it the ultimate anti-blunder police weapon: the “gun that saves lives” according to its website.

Criminal fashion

Sweden

Committing a serious crime is likely to result in a prison sentence. But does it also have to mean being condemned to wearing unflattering and ill-fitting clothes? Not anymore, at least not if you’re one of Sweden’s 260 female prisoners.

The Swedish Prison and Probation Service has commissioned graduating fashion students at Beckmans College of Design in Stockholm to create a clothing range for female inmates, replacing the unisex – read men’s – clothes they have had to use until now. The result is a collection of simple, easy-to-wear cotton pieces that enable female prisoners to vary their wardrobes.“Being able to feel a sense of identity is also a form of treatment for the inmates,” says the college’s principal, Tom Hedqvist.

Minsk condition

Belarus

Belarus, the “last dictatorship in Europe”, will continue its slow realignment away from Russia and towards the West in the next few months. “It’s not a sudden change, but there is a gradual readjustment of politics,” says Rainer Lindner of the German Institute for International & Security Affairs. “After disputes over gas prices with Russia, there’s a need for Belarus to reorient its economy.” Three high-profile political prisoners have been released as a token gesture to sweeten western opinion towards Alexander Lukashenko’s (pictured) regime, and British PR firm Bell Pottinger has been recruited to advise on the country’s international image. Additionally, privatisation of state assets began this summer, and in mid-November the prime minister will lead a delegation to London to showcase the country at a specially organised forum. It’s the first such event for Belarus, and a sign it is keen to seek foreign investors for the first time. The westward drive may also be part of a political game to put pressure on its biggest ally. “The feeling is that the closer they are to the West, the harder it is for Russia to bully them,” says Lindner.

On the rocks

Finland

This autumn, Finland’s government is to debate whether to raise taxes on alcohol, the number one cause of death for 15- to 64-year-olds (let’s hope guns will jump up the agenda first). Taxes were reduced by 44 per cent in 2004 to discourage buying of alcohol from cheaper countries. Importing waned but home consumption increased, so taxes went up 11 per cent, and Finns went looking for booze abroad again.

Finland’s ruin
01 Last year, for “Dry January”, 17 per cent of Finns gave up drinking for the month.
02 In April, the Ministry of the Interior defined drinking as a significant threat to Finland’s security.
03 All alcohol – except mild beer – is sold through the state monopoly, Alko.

Start them young

Austria

In 2007, Austria became the only European Union country and the first of the world’s leading democracies to lower its voting age to 16. Only Brazil, Cuba, Nicaragua and the Isle of Man have done the same.

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