Press release

After a Summer of Unrest, French Police Tactics Face Court Scrutiny

September 26, 2023
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NEW YORK—France’s State Council, the country’s highest administrative court, is to hear a legal challenge to systematic police tactics that unfairly target young people of color—brought by six French and international legal rights groups, including the Open Society Justice Initiative.

The hearing in Paris, on Friday, September 29, comes just three months after massive protests erupted across France over the shooting to death of 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk by police in the suburbs of Paris at the end of June. The killing and subsequent violent protests again underlined deep-rooted, systemic failures in French policing of communities of Arab and African descent—the issue at the heart of this legal complaint.

It focuses on the use of police identity stops—known as contrôle au faciès—that unfairly single out young men and women of African or Arab origin. It argues that the French state has failed to take necessary steps to prevent and remedy ethnic profiling by the police during these identity checks—a form of systemic discrimination.

The six petitioners, represented by lawyer Antoine Lyon-Caen, also include the Maison Communautaire pour un Dévelopement Solidaire (MCDS), Pazapas, Réseau Egalité, Antidiscrimination, Justice Interdisciplinaire (Reaji), Amnesty International France, and Human Rights Watch.

Issa Coulibaly, head of Pazapas, a local youth group based in the Paris suburb of Belleville, said:

“We hope this hearing will bring recognition by the law of the injustice that young people of color in French cities face every day. To be stopped by police in the middle of the street for no reason; to be spread-eagled, to have your ID checked, to be frisked, in front of everyone. And all for nothing. And this happens over and over again. Those that don’t live it, don’t know it. But everyone needs to know that this injustice must end.”

Maite De Rue, a litigation officer at the Open Society Justice Initiative involved in the case, said:

“The tragic events of this summer showed France and the world once again that something is profoundly broken in French policing. This vitally important case is a bid to secure the systemic change that so far the government and the police refuse to acknowledge is so desperately needed.”

The case is being brought as a class action, an innovative procedure under French law that allows civil society groups to ask the court to order the authorities to take measures to put an end to the widespread illegal practice of ethnic profiling.

The groups are asking the Council of State to find the French state at fault for failing to prevent widespread use of ethnic profiling by the police and to order the authorities to adopt necessary reforms, including: 

  • Modify identity check powers to explicitly prohibit discrimination in identity checks, abolish preventive identity checks, and circumscribe police authority to ensure that all identity checks, including those based on a prosecutor’s orders, are based on objective and individual grounds
  • Adopt specific regulations and instructions for stops targeting children
  • Create a system to record and evaluate data on identity checks and to provide those stopped with a record of the stop
  • Create an effective, independent complaints mechanism
  • Change the institutional objectives, guidelines, and training of the police, including with respect to interactions with the public

The legal complaint, first filed in July 2021, argues that ethnic profiling by the French police constitutes systemic discrimination—defined by the UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights as “legal rules, policies, practices or predominant cultural attitudes in the public sector . . . which create relative disadvantages for some groups, and privileges for other groups”—and details the French state’s inadequate response to date to put an end to it.

Measures adopted that have proved insufficient include the use of body cameras and the obligation on police officers to wear badge numbers. The authorities have consistently rejected all attempts to record identity checks and provide those stopped with some kind of record of the procedure.

In June 2021, the Paris Court of Appeals once again condemned the French state for “gross misconduct” for the discriminatory stop of three students in a Paris train station in 2017 as they were returning from a class trip.

The Defender of Rights has repeatedly criticized discriminatory identity checks and called for reform. In 2016, the Court of Cassation ruled that police stops of three young men in 2011 constituted discrimination and “gross misconduct that engages the responsibility of the state.”

The Justice Initiative is also part of the legal team in a complaint currently before the European Court of Human Rights, Seydi and others v. France, focused on the failure of the French government and legal system to end discriminatory police stops.

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