Class-action lawsuits claim French police often discriminate against French police
On Wednesday, in a first for France, six NGOs launched a class action lawsuit against the French government for alleged systemic discrimination by police officers carrying out identity checks.
Organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International argue that in ID checks, French police use racial profiling to target Black people and Arab descendants.
In order to ensure that racial profiling does not determine who is stopped by the police, they served Prime Minister Jean Castex and the French interior and justice ministers with formal legal notice of demands for concrete steps and deep law enforcement reforms.
At a news conference in Paris, the organisations, which also include the Open Society Justice Initiative and three French grassroots groups, plan to spell out the legal initiative.
The issue of racial profiling by the French police has been discussed for years, including, but not limited to, the practise of officers conducting identity checks on young people who are often black or of Arab descent and live in poor housing projects.
In a two-stage lawsuit process, serving notice is the compulsory first step. The law allows four months for the French authorities to talk to the NGOs about meeting their demands. According to one of the lawyers, Slim Ben Achour, if the parties behind the lawsuit are left unsatisfied after that time, the case will go to court.
It’s France’s first class-action discrimination lawsuit based on colour or alleged ethnic origins. The NGOs are using a little-used French law from 2016 that allows associations to take such a legal step.
It’s revolutionary, because we’re going to be talking to hundreds of thousands, even a million people.” In a phone interview, Ben Achour told The Associated Press.” NGOs are pursuing class action on behalf of racial minorities, who are mostly French citizens of the second or third generation.
“The group is black and brown,” said Ben Achour.
If the talks progress, the four-month period for reaching a settlement could be prolonged, but if not, the NGOs will go to court, he said.
For many in France, the abuse of identity checks has served as an emblem of broader alleged racism within police ranks, with critics claiming that the authorities have left misconduct unchecked or whitewashed.
A video of a recent incident posted online drew a response from President Emmanuel Macron, who called “unbearable” racial profiling. Police officials say that when they appear in suburban housing projects, officers themselves feel under attack. Officers became trapped during a spate of confrontational incidents and had fireworks and other items thrown at them.
Instead of monetary damage, NGOs are seeking reforms, particularly changes in the law governing identity checks. The organisations argue that the law is too broad and does not allow for police accountability because it is impossible to trace the actions of the officers involved, while the individuals stopped are left humiliated and sometimes angry.
The organisations want, among other demands, an end to the long-standing tradition of assessing police success by the number of tickets given or arrests made, arguing that benchmarks will facilitate unfounded identity checks.
There are some 50 witnesses in the lawsuit, both police officers and individuals subject to abusive checks, whose accounts are excerpted in the letters of notice. The NGO cites one unnamed individual who has spoken for years about undergoing multiple police checks every day.
A police officer posted in a tough suburb of Paris who is not associated with the case told the AP that when he is wearing civilian clothes, he is often subjected to identity checks.
I’m a person of colour when I’m not in uniform,” said the officer, who asked to remain anonymous in accordance with police rules and because of the sensitive nature of the topic.” The police need a legal basis for their actions, “but they do checks (based on) heads 80 percent of the time,” meaning how a person looks.
The head of the Community House for Supportive Development, Omer Mas Capitolin, a grassroots NGO participating in the legal action, called it a “mechanical reflex” for the French police to stop non-whites, a practise he said is harmful to the person being inspected and ultimately to the relationships they are expected to protect between officers and members of the public.
“It lowers your self-esteem when you’re always checked,” and you become a “second-class citizen,” Mas Capitolin said. “Victims in this country are afraid to file complaints even if they know what happened is not normal,” he said, because they fear neighbourhood police fallout.
He credited the case of George Floyd, the Black American who, after a white police officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck, died last year in Minneapolis, with raising his conscience and becoming a catalyst for change in France.
The NGOs, however, make it clear that they are not accusing individual police of being racist because, in a joint document, the groups said, “they act within a system that allowed these practises to spread and become installed.”
There is so much in that world. They never think that there’s a problem,’ said the lawyer, Ben Achour.