Press release

Justice Initiative Joins Groups in Giving Notice of Class Action Lawsuit against French Government for Ethnic Profiling by Police

January 27, 2021
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PARIS—Today, the Open Society Justice Initiative joined civil and human rights groups in sending a letter of notice of a class action lawsuit against France’s Prime Minister, Minister of the Interior, and Minister of Justice for police identity checks that perpetuate ongoing and systemic ethnic profiling by targeting individuals of Black and Arab origin. The notice of suit is unprecedented in nature and requests that the French government enact comprehensive measures to end this practice of racial discrimination. The notice also includes affidavits from police officers confirming the prevalence of ethnic profiling, as well as testimonies from individuals across the country against whom police have discriminated.

“Incidents of police brutality caught on tape, such Michel Zecler’s brutal assault in November, have further brought to light the horrific impacts of discrimination,” said Lanna Hollo, a senior legal officer at the Justice Initiative. “The French government must urgently make substantive, systemic changes to protect the public against police checks based on appearance. We know that piecemeal, incremental measures such as the use of body cameras are ineffective in themselves, and even, in some cases, counter-productive.”

This is the first notice of a class action in France regarding racial discrimination by agents of the state, with the French government having only set out the general procedural framework for class actions in 2016. In the notice of suit, the plaintiff organizations call on the French government to initiate a range of comprehensive reforms to be adopted en bloc, in order for a solution to be enacted consistent with the systemic nature of ethnic profiling.

Some of these requested legal and policy reforms include, but not limited to:

  • introducing amendments to the criminal code to explicitly ban identity checks based on reasons other than objective and individualized suspicion, for instance, origins, physical appearance, or race;
  • implementing specific regulations and instructions for police stops of children;
  • creating a system to record and evaluate data on identity checks, and to provide those stopped by police with a record of the interaction;
  • creating an effective and independent complaints mechanism;
  • ratifying protocol 12 of the European Convention on Human Rights on non-discrimination; and
  • modifying police mission statements, orders, and training, namely regarding interactions with the public.

The Prime Minister, the Minister of the Interior, and the Minister of Justice have four months to respond to the requests contained in the notice of suit, after which a judge could take up the case and order the government to adopt systemic reforms.

In three 2016 decisions, the Court of Cassation found the state had committed serious misconduct in carrying out discriminatory identity checks. However, the decisions were not followed by any government measures to address the problem.

The practice of profiling by police in France is a long-standing, widely recognized problem that has been extensively documented. A 2009 Justice Initiative report concluded that Black people in France “were between 3.3 and 11.5 times more likely than whites to be stopped; while Arabs were stopped between 1.8 and 14.8 more times than whites.” Similarly, France’s Défenseur des droits, an independent public official responsible for upholding human rights, published a 2017 study finding that young men perceived as Black or Arab were 20 times more likely to be stopped by police.

The Justice Initiative has engaged in efforts to stem ethnic profiling for over 15 years, including by researching international approaches to ending the practice and working with authorities to pilot reforms. In addition to the Justice Initiative, plaintiffs initiating the lawsuit on behalf of individuals targeted by ethnic profiling include la Maison communautaire pour un développement solidaire (MCDS), Pazapas, Réseau—Égalité, antidiscrimination, justice—interdisciplinaire (Reaji), Amnesty International France, and Human Rights Watch.

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