Press release

Top French Court Recognizes Police Discrimination but Declines to Act

October 11, 2023
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NEW YORK—The Open Society Justice Initiative notes with dismay the decision of France’s highest administrative court—the Conseil d’État—not to take action in response to a legal complaint over racist tactics systematically employed by French police against young people of color.

A lawsuit brought before the court by six groups, including the Justice Initiative, focused 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 argued 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—and listed a set of proposed measures the court might take in response.

In its judgment, issued on October 11, the 17 judges of the court acknowledged that discriminatory police stops could not be considered as something that happened on an isolated basis.

But the court declined to require the government to take specific measures to address the issue, arguing that this would exceed its constitutional mandate.

Maïté De Rue, a senior lawyer at the Open Society Justice Initiative involved in the case, said: 

“The decision of the State Council is extremely disappointing. It recognized that ethnic profiling is a serious and pervasive problem in France. But it missed the historic opportunity to order the French authorities to take measures to to end this racial discrimination, in compliance with their international obligations.”

The ruling comes just over 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.

First filed in July 2021, it argued 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.

French courts have repeatedly ruled against the French authorities in individual cases of discriminatory stops by the police. But measures adopted by the government in response have so far proved insufficient, including 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.

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

“With the ECHR case upcoming, this is not the end of the road for legal efforts to challenge these continuing abuses,” said James A. Goldston, executive director of the Justice Initiative, and one of the lawyers arguing before the Strasbourg-based court.

Issa Coulibaly, head of Pazapas, a local youth group based in the Paris suburb of Belleville, said: “Pazapas decided to rely on the law and the country's highest administrative Court to take action where policies have been lacking, despite longstanding demands from affected communities. We note that these high judicial authorities have failed to understand the violence and exclusion generated by these police practices. They failed to grasp the historic opportunity to improve the daily lives of millions of their fellow citizens, particularly those perceived as black and Arab. So, what are we left with today?”

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.


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