Rights groups take police racial profiling case to top French court

France’s first class-action lawsuit is aimed at forcing the government to tackle systemic discrimination by the police.
France’s first class-action lawsuit is aimed at forcing the government to tackle systemic discrimination by the police. © Lionel Bonaventure, AFP

Leading rights organisations and grassroots groups took France’s first class-action lawsuit targeting the police to the highest administrative authority on Thursday, aiming 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. It was compiled by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Open Society Justice Initiative and three grassroots organisations that work with youth.

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 colour, often left feeling alienated from French society. 

Instead of money for victims, 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 that they have done so. Among other things, they also want an independent mechanism to lodge complaints and training for police officers. 

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 in a French class-action case. The law gave them four months to open talks with the NGOs on how to meet their demands for change within the police, before the matter could go before a court.

Dead silence was the response, which is why the groups took the case to the Council of State.

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Antoine Lyon-Caen, the lead lawyer in the case, called the government silence “humiliating” for racial profiling victims.

Issa Coulibaly, head of Pazapas, a youth association in eastern Paris involved in the suit, said the official silence is in keeping with “institutional denial” of the problem. 

“It confirms this contempt, this lack of consideration for a part of the citizenry subjected to this,” he said. Coulibaly, a 41-year-old Black man, said he was subjected to numerous undue ID checks starting at the age of 14. 

French courts have found the state guilty racial profiling in identity checks in the past. In a landmark 2016 case, France’s highest court ruled for the first time that police had illegally stopped three men based on racial profiling, setting more specific rules to ensure checks are not discriminatory.

study conducted by France's National Centre for Scientific Research has shown that Blacks are 11.5 times more likely to be checked by police than Whites, and those of Arab origin are seven times more likely.

At the height of mass protests against racism last summer, Jacques Toubon, then France's human rights ombudsman, raised the alarm over widespread discrimination and a "crisis of public confidence in the security forces" in a report that made for grim reading.

Toubon urged a reversal of what he described as a "warring mentality" in law enforcement.

(FRANCE 24 with AP)

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