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France struggles to address racial profiling by police

A French court has dismissed allegations that police identity checks on 13 minorities were racially motivated. Rights groups are calling for a system to monitor the number of individuals police stop on the street, as well as why they are stopped.


It was one of his campaign promises.

“I will fight racial profiling by police through a new procedure that will ensure the rights of citizens are protected,” France’s Socialist president, François Hollande, vowed before he was elected in May.

But a year and a half later, little has changed in France, where police routinely stop black and Arab residents on the street to ask for their identity papers.

On October 2, a case brought by 13 minorities alleging they were victims of racial profiling was dismissed.

Now, a proposal to keep written records of when and why police stop individuals in the street has resurfaced, after being rejected by Interior Minister Manuel Valls in September 2012.

"Urgent" issue

The records would allow authorities to keep closer tabs on officers who frequently ask people to show their papers in the street. At the same time, it would permit people who are asked to show their papers to build a case if they ever suspect that they are being targeted because of their ethnic background.

In the wake of the court’s ruling, Razzy Hammadi, a Socialist lawmaker from Seine-Saint-Denis, one of Paris’s most underprivileged suburbs, released a statement saying that it was “urgent” for France to keep written records in order to combat racial profiling.

“On the ground, we’re hearing the exasperation of those who are victims of racial profiling, and we can see the consequent deterioration of the relationship between police and citizens,” Hammadi’s statement read.

Hammadi called for the government “to start fulfilling [Hollande’s campaign promise] by testing out the procedure in several French cities”.

The system would require two documents for each identity check carried out by the police: one for the officer and one for the individual stopped on the street. In accordance with French law, no information regarding the individual’s race or religion would be recorded on the documents. Rather, the written records would provide a data base of how many people are being subject to the identity checks and what reasons police are providing for performing them.

A success in Spain and UK

Though the keeping of written records has provoked debate in France, Hammadi pointed out that “it has already proven satisfactory in other countries, not just for citizens, but also for the police”.

Implemented in the UK in 1984, the system is also used in certain US states, Canada and in the Spanish city of Fuenlabrada (near Madrid).

According to David Martin Abanadès, a police officer in Fuenlabrada, keeping written records has resulted in a 50% reduction in identity checks since 2007, when the practice was implemented.

“The results are extremely positive,” Abanadès told French radio station France Inter in October 2012. “The image of the police has improved in the eyes of the people.”

A group of French associations collectively called “Stop Racial Profiling”, created nearly three years ago, hopes that such a system would have the same impact in France.

“Identity checks in the street are the only police act that leaves no trace,” said Sihame Assbague, the group’s spokesperson. “Our goal isn’t to eliminate them. We just want to end a discriminatory practice […] Racial profiling is illegal and unconstitutional. We’ve been asking for written records to be kept for the past three years.”

Assbague specified that cities like Dijon and Paris have even volunteered to test the system.

The Valls obstacle

Several top French political figures on both the right and the left, including Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, have said they are in favour of keeping written records, and bills that would establish the procedure have been submitted by various lawmakers over the past few years.

But all have come up against the same obstacle: Interior Minister Manuel Valls.

Without even waiting for the report ordered by France’s public human rights watchdog, Valls said in September 2012 that such a measure would be “very difficult to put in place, too bureaucratic and hard to manage”, as well as “incompatible with our republican ideals”.

Valls’s refusal to consider the reform has angered rights groups. “Manuel Valls has dug his heels in,” Assbague said, noting that the Socialist minister had sided with a right-leaning police union. “Equality and justice are clearly not his priorities. And since he’s popular, the president and the prime minister have listened to him.”

But “Stop Racial Profiling” does not see Wednesday’s court ruling as the final word.

The lawyers representing the 13 plaintiffs have already announced their intention to appeal the decision, even if that entails taking the case to the European Court of Human Rights.

“Sooner or later, we will finish by winning this battle in a court room,” Assbague noted with confidence. “Unless the breakthrough comes from the president himself.”


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