PARIS – After months of government silence, leading rights organizations and grassroots groups on Thursday took France’s first class-action lawsuit targeting the nation’s powerful police machine to the highest administrative authority to fix what they contend is a culture of systemic discrimination in identity checks.
The 220-page file, chock full of examples of racial profiling by French police, was delivered to the Council of State, the ultimate arbiter on the use of power by authorities. The complaint was lodged by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Open Society Justice Initiative and three grassroots organizations that work with youth.
The unprecedented move underlines longstanding complaints about alleged police abuse of identity checks, particularly in neighborhoods where people of color reside. Critics have said such checks, which are sometimes rough and often carried out multiple times on the same person, can mark youth for life and worsen the notoriously poor relationship between police officers and youth in some neighborhoods.
“This is a big day, the day a powerful, unprecedented action is put before the Council of State regarding racial profiling ... a generalized police practice in France,” Antoine Lyon-Caen, the lead lawyer in the case, said at a news conference.
Victims of unjust ID checks seek no money. Instead, “We're going after the root cause," Lyon-Caen said.
The NGOs allege that French police target Black people and people of Arab descent in choosing who to stop and check. Police officers who corroborate such accounts are among people cited in the file.
The groups behind the lawsuit contend the practice is rooted in a culture of systemic discrimination within the police with far-reaching consequences for people of color, law enforcement and society.
“It’s a humiliating experience. You’re in the street, you’re frisked, patted down and questioned in front of everyone,” said Issa Coulibaly, head of Pazapas, a youth association in eastern Paris involved in the suit.
The suit seeks deep reforms within law enforcement to ensure an end to racial profiling, including a change in a penal code that currently gives officers carte blanche to check IDs — with no trace they have done so. Among other things, they also want training for police officers and an independent mechanism to lodge complaints — currently investigated by an internal law enforcement body.
In a new report, the IGPN, as the body is known, counted 72 complaints about police violence during identity checks in 2020, and 38 complaints for racist insults by police officers. Rights groups say that most victims, often fearful of consequences, do not lodge complaints.
The NGOs took the case to the Council of State after the government failed to meet a four-month deadline to respond to the opening salvo in the class-action suit.
The prime minister’s office and the justice and interior ministries were initially served notice of the suit in late January — the first step in a two-stage process. The law gave them four months to open talks with the NGOs on how to meet demands for change within the police, before the matter could go before a court.
The government silence “carries the regrettable odor of condescension” toward racial profiling victims, further humiliating them, Lyon-Caen, the attorney, said.
“Lots of people suffer from these practices and the government didn’t even feel a need to say something,” he said in an interview.
Coulibaly said the official silence is in keeping with “institutional denial” of the problem. But he said this next legal step is a new dose of hope for change.
Children as young as 10 can be checked if they are Black or perceived as of Arab descent, said Coulibaly, a 41-year-old Black man who said he was subjected to numerous undue ID checks starting at age 14.
“It’s a reality for all working class neighborhoods and a reality for the poor and where there are people of immigrant origin,” he said.
French courts have found the state guilty of racial profiling in identity checks in the past, most recently in June when a Paris appeals court ruled that discrimination was behind police ID checks on three high school students of color at a train station in 2017 returning with classmates from a school trip. The court convicted the French state of a “grave fault” and ordered reparations paid. And the Court of Cassation, France's highest court, convicted the state in 2016 in another racial profiling case.
“The ID check is really the door to lots of things that can be very destructive in the life of a person,” Coulibaly said. “After a 50th check in your life, the 10th in a week or the third check in a day, especially when you’re young, you have a tendency to react, to react badly."
The impact of such practices can be initially invisible, organizations filing the law suit maintain.
ID checks "are often youths' first interaction with police and can be their first experience of discrimination by a French institution," said Benedicte Jeannerod of Human Rights Watch. Two studies by the NGO show that abusive checks can “degrade their (victims') feeling of belonging to French society, seriously hurt their relationship with authorities and deepen the rift with police.”
The Council of State has the power to order the French state to end such practices and make the requested changes, Lyon-Caen said. The law requires a decision in a “reasonable” time, but that could be a year or more, he said, noting that the unprecedent case takes the Council of State into uncharted territory.
Arno Pedram in Paris contributed.