Sunday, May 9

Groups Put French State on Legal Notice Over Police Racism


PARIS — Six nongovernmental organizations put the French state on notice on Wednesday to force it to address “systemic discriminatory practices by the police,” a rare collective legal action that will take the government onto uncharted grounds.

The organizations, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, accused the French government of neglecting its duty to end discriminatory police identity checks — a practice they said was “widespread, deeply rooted in the policing.”

They also called on the authorities to bring in “structural reforms and to take concrete measures to stop these practices,” a statement read.

It is the first time such a collective action is targeting the French state in relation to policing since its introduction as a legal device in the country in 2014.

In keeping with French procedures, the nongovernmental groups, representing dozens of plaintiffs, first sent a formal notice asking the prime minister, and the interior and justice ministers, to address the issue of discriminatory practices by the police within four months. If the government does not take satisfactory action by then, the organizations may file a class-action lawsuit.

Changes requested by the organizations include amending the French code of criminal procedure to explicitly prohibit discriminatory identity checks, introducing specific rules for checking minors and creating a comprehensive database on identity checks.

It is difficult to get a precise measure of racial profiling by the police because ethnic statistics are tightly regulated in France. But a 2017 investigation by the state civil liberties guardian found that “young men perceived to be Black or Arab” were 20 times as likely to be subjected to police identity checks than the rest of the population.

Several studies from nongovernmental organizations, including a Human Rights Watch report released last June, also pointed to systemic discrimination by the police. In 2016, France’s Supreme Court of Appeals ruled that police identity checks of several young men because of their “real or supposed origin” constituted “a serious misconduct involving the responsibility of the state.”

Police officials and unions have long ignored these reports, and various French governments have balked at pushing for police overhauls. Gérald Darmanin, the interior minister, has insisted that instances of police racism were the work of “individuals” rather than a systemic issue.

But even members of the police force have started to sound the alarm.

“It’s a fact — there is racism in the police,” said Noam Anouar, an officer turned whistle-blower who in 2017 revealed racist messages sent by his superiors. He accused the police authorities of regularly finding ways to retrospectively justify practices that could be considered discriminatory.

“The administration has legalized illegality,” Mr. Anouar said.

By driving the government into a judicial corner, the organizations’ collective action aims to end these practices.

Slim Ben Achour, one of the lawyers representing the groups, said the move “confronts the state with its responsibilities,” about what he called its passiveness in addressing the issue.



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