On Wednesday, in a first for France, six NGOs filed a class action complaint against the French government for perceived racial discrimination by police officers carrying out identification checks.
Organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International say that in ID scans, French police use ethnic discrimination to harass Black citizens and Arab descendants.
In order to ensure that ethnic discrimination does not decide who is detained by the police, they presented Prime Minister Jean Castex and France’s interior and justice ministers with formal legal notification of demands for specific action and deep law enforcement changes.
Antoine Lyon-Caen, the lead prosecutor in the lawsuit, said that the court suit would not blame particular police officers, but “the system itself that generates discriminatory practice through its laws, habits, culture.”
“The response, the reactions, the remedies, the measures must be systemic, given the shortcomings of the state (concern) and systemic practise,” Lyon-Caen said at a news conference with NGOs taking action. They comprise three French grassroots organisations and the Open Society Rights Project.
For years, the problem of ethnic discrimination by the French police has been festering, including, though not limited to, the phenomenon of officers carrying out identification tests on young people who are mostly black or of Arab origin who living in deprived housing projects.
In a two-stage litigation process, serving notice is the compulsory first step. The law offers four months for the French authorities to speak to the NGOs about how they should fulfil the demands. According to one of the attorneys, Slim Ben Achour, if the people behind the complaint are left unsatisfied, the matter will go to arbitration.
It’s France’s first class-action discrimination case focused on race or claimed racial heritage. The NGOs are using a little-used French legislation from 2016 that requires organisations to take such a legal move.
It’s groundbreaking, and we’re going to be referring to hundreds of thousands, maybe a million people.” In a phone interview, Ben Achour told The Associated Press.” NGOs was taking class action on behalf of ethnic minorities, who are predominantly French residents of the second or third generation.
“The group is black and brown,” said Ben Achour.
If the talks made progress, he added, the four-month timeframe for finding a deal may be extended.
For many in France, the misuse of identity checks has acted as an example of wider perceived bias within police ranks, with opponents alleging that the authorities have left corruption unregulated or whitewashed.
A video of a recent event shared online attracted a rebuke from President Emmanuel Macron, who called “unbearable” racial discrimination. Police authorities say that when they arrive in residential housing developments, officers themselves feel under threat. Officers got stuck during a spate of confrontational events and had fireworks and other things hurled at them.
Instead of monetary disruption, NGOs are pursuing reforms, especially changes in the law regulating identity checks. They contend that the legislation is too vague and does not allow for police oversight so it is hard to track the conduct of the officers involved, whilst the people stopped are left embarrassed and often furious.
The groups want, among other demands, an end to the long-standing tradition of assessing police success through the amount of citations given or arrests made, arguing that benchmarks will facilitate unfounded identity checks.
There are about 50 witnesses of the case, both police officers and persons exposed to abusive inspections, whose accounts are extracted in the 145-page notice letters. The NGO quotes one unidentified person who has talked for years about receiving numerous police tests every day.
A police officer stationed in a tough suburb of Paris who is not associated with the case told the AP that, while in civilian clothes, he is frequently subjected to ID 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 justification for their acts, “but they do checks (based on) heads 80 percent of the time,” indicating how a person looks.
The head of the Group House for Supportive Growth, Omer Mas Capitolin, a grassroots NGO involved in the legal action, called it a “mechanical reflex” for the French police to stop non-whites, a tactic he claimed is dangerous to the individual being inspected and eventually to the relationships they are supposed 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 local police fallout.
He credited the case of George Floyd, the Black American who, when a white police officer pushed his knee into Floyd’s throat, died last year in Minneapolis, with lifting his consciousness and being a force for reform in France.
Issa Coulibaly, the head of Pazapas-Belleville, another group taking part in the lawsuit, said, “These are practises that affect the whole society.” Like a downward spiral, profiling hurts the “feeling of belonging” of young people to the life of the country and “reinforces other people’s prejudices.”
NGOs also made it known that they do not suspect particular policemen of being racist.
There is so much of that world. They never think that there’s a crisis,’ said the prosecutor, Ben Achour.