French government put on legal notice for racial profiling by police

·3-min read

Six NGOs have filed a lawsuit against the French government, pointing to what they say is systemic discrimination by the French police who use racial profiling when carrying out identity checks. It’s the first-ever class-action in France against discrimination based on skin colour or ethnic origins.

The groups argue that French police target black and North African people when carrying out ID checks, and the lawsuit is intended to push for legal reforms to ensure racial profiling does not determine who gets stopped by police.

In a joint statement, the organisations—three French groups along with international groups Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Open Society Justice Initiative—say they are filing the suit on behalf of racial minorities “to stop discriminatory identity checks, a practice that is stigmatising, humiliating and degrading for those people who are victims of them in France.”

The 350-page legal notice served to Prime Minister Jean Castex and the interior and justice ministers on Wednesday is the first in a two-step process that is aimed at changing how the police carry out their duties.

A 2016 law allows associations to file a lawsuit, which brings authorities to the table to negotiate. If the demands in the suit are not met, then it goes to court.

Systemic racism

The organsations are not seeking monetary damages; rather, they want reforms, because racially-motivated identity checks are humiliating for those being targeted, and they damage relations between and the people they are expected to protect.

The notice features some 50 witnesses, both people subjected to abusive checks in nine cities around France and police officers who testify to the use of the identity checks to increase performance numbers.

It calls for an end to the practice of gauging police performance by numbers of tickets issued or arrests made, arguing that the benchmarks can encourage baseless identity checks.

"This is not about accusing police officers of being racist, but a system that generates discriminatory practices,” said lawyer Antoine Lyon-Caen during a video press conference on Wednesday.

Officers “act within a system that allowed these practices to spread and become installed,” the groups said in the joint statement.

The lawsuit is intended to push for deep reforms. Small solutions like the use of body cameras by police are not enough to address the problem, argue the groups.

The notice calls for a modification of the penal procedure code to “explicitly prohibit discrimination in identification checks”. It also calls for police to put in place a system of receipts, in order to track who gets stopped the most, and by whom. And it calls for an independent mechanism for people to file complaints.

Longstanding problem

Police misconduct is a longstanding problem that has been raised by lawsuits and critical reports.

In 2016, the French court of cassation, the highest appeals court, ruled in favour of 13 men who filed a case in 2013 claiming they had been the target of discriminatory ID checks.

The court said that “an ID check based on physical characteristics associated with a real or supposed origin without any prior, objective justification, is discriminatory” and is considered “serious misconduct”.

In a January 2017 report, the Rights Defender, an independent body to protect citizens’ rights, found that young people, 18-25 years old, say they are stopped seven times more for ID checks by the police than the rest of the population, and that men “perceived as black or Arab” are five times more likely to be stopped multiple times.

The issue has become particularly pressing in the wake of the murder in the United States of George Floyd, a black man, at the hands of police. And in November in Paris, a video of music producer Michel Zecler, a black man, being beaten up by four police officers, went viral.

In an interview a few days later, President Emmanuel Macron to call racial profiling “unbearable.”

"Today when you have skin colour that is not white, you are stopped a lot more… You are identified as a problem and that is unbearable,” he said in an interview with the online media Brut.