Paris: Capital city of the private eye

20th December 2006, Comments 0 comments

The world's most famous detective may have spoken English, but the character of Sherlock Holmes was, so it's said, inspired by a Frenchman. And now Paris University is the first in the world to offer a degree in a profession invented in France.


France, home to the world's first detective agency in the mid-19th century, is training what are billed as the first private eyes to be armed with ... a specialist university degree.

The student private investigators are studying how to shadow a suspect and other tricks of the trade at Paris University, in what the country's Federal Union of Detectives says is a world first.

So, out with the image of a seedy amateur with turned-up collar and hat pulled low behind a cloud of cigarette smoke, and enter the business-attired, high-tech and highly qualified professional.

Sherlock Holmes was French

The first 20 students set to emerge with this new image began their two- or three-year bachelor's degree course in mid-October at the Melun Institute for Law and Economics, part of the University of Paris-Assas II.

They hope to bury the image set by François Eugene Vidocq, a former convict, who in 1833 opened a "Bureau of Universal Investigations for Commerce and Industry" in Paris and who is thought to have inspired Arthur Conan Doyle to create his famous fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes.

However, the students know changing public perceptions may take time.

Jean-Pierre Laforge, 25, a professional detective with a degree in law and criminology who originally thought of becoming a police officer, said: "I waited a long time until telling my family I was a detective. It was coolly received."

He, like Jean-Emmanuel Derny, 55, and Gerald Fontaine, 50, said they enrolled for the degree course because they had not been in business long enough to escape the reach of new regulations.

The long arm of the law

"Unless you have been in the job for three years then you are required to obtain this new degree," the University Professional Diploma in Private Investigation, Laforge said.

The Institute in Melun, a city about 50 kilometres south of Paris, had already been offering a diploma course in private investigation since October 1998 and created a professional diploma after the government tightened regulations for the profession.

And it is from this diploma, which only allowed holders to work for a private detective agency and not to set up in business on their own, that the degree course has evolved.

"Students can sign up for the agency director degree as long as they have completed one or two years of university studies. They do not have to complete the diploma in private investigation first," said Mark Gjidara, director of the Melun Institute.

"But they will have to do 400 hours of internship with a law office or insurance company, a detective or other legal professional, except for those  who have considerable professional legal or para-legal experience."

Perhaps disappointingly, investigation techniques such as shadowing or discreetly checking out somebody's background take up just a small fraction of the course, which focuses on more mundane topics like insurance, banking and tax laws, Internet security, accounting and finance.

Half of the students this year are female.

Marie-Claire Dumarest, 44, works as a legal assistant and read about the course in a newspaper.

"It attracts me as a profession because it covers many fields: one has to be patient, like doing research, be adaptable, be a good listener," she said.

The profession is now one of the most highly regulated in France, said Christian Borniche, vice-president of the Federal Union of Detectives and instructor at the Institute, "with draconian restrictions on those who practice it."

"Not only must you have a completely clean police record but also be beyond suspicion on moral and ethic grounds," he said.

Sam Spade would have been bored

This may explain why there are only between 1,000 and 1,500 private detectives in France, 25 percent of them women, Borniche said.

The Institute is also keen to limit the number of graduates because it says there is barely enough work to go around.

"We don't want to flood the market with 100 graduates a year knowing that most of them would end up unemployed," Gjidara said, "but we think the market can absorb 20 a year."

Detectives can investigate any non-criminal case.

Often their work entails trailing somebody suspected by their spouse of adultery, but the bulk consists of such things as checking that a tenant has not illegally turned an apartment into an office or examining the financial health of a business.

Other assignments may include working with an insurance company to check the validity of a claim.

Generally, much more mundane than Sherlock Holmes' investigations.

December 2006

Copyright AFP

Subject: Living in France, Paris University, French diplomas, private investigation

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