France’s New Government Moves Quickly on Discriminatory Police Stops

This morning, the new French Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, made clear that the new government intends to act quickly to implement an election promise of Francois Hollande to tackle the problem of discriminatory police identity checks. This is a major success for a campaign of research, lobbying and litigation that has been actively supported by the Open Society Justice Initiative.

Speaking on French television, Ayrault said the ministry of the interior was developing a system under which people stopped by the police, under what is called in French contrôles au faciès,  would be given a “receipt,” recording details of the stop.

In his interview, Ayrault said: “It is not a matter of stopping police checks—the police must be allowed to do their work—it is just a matter of providing a receipt.” He emphasized that this measure would be useful for police as they need to regain trust and respect. 

Similar systems have been developed in Canada, the US and England, but police in France have in the past been under no obligation to record the details of stops that research shows disproportionately focus on those of North African or Arab origin. 

The idea of introducing such receipts has met with strong negative reactions from police unions. They have stated that this will prevent them from doing their work effectively.

These fears are not borne out by experiences with this system in other contexts. In a pilot project coordinated by Open Society Justice Initiative stop forms were introduced in different locations in Spain, Bulgaria and Hungary. The project results demonstrated that these forms can play an important role in reducing discriminatory police stops while improving police effectiveness. In one of the sites, the Fuenlebrada suburb of Madrid, the rate of successful police stops tripled, during the first three months of the experiment, while the total number of stops decreased significantly. 

The Justice Initiative, which works on policing issues across Europe, believes that stop forms can play an important role in reducing discriminatory police stops. However, in order to have a significant impact, this measure needs to be part of a wider set of steps including dialogue and consultation with minority organizations, training police on the manner they carry out stops, and a change in the legal framework regulating stops, so that police may only stop an individual when there are reasonable grounds of suspicion.  

In France, the Justice Initiative, together with a grassroots coalition “Stop le Controle au Facies” and the French lawyer’s union (SAF), is supporting a civil case brought by 15 young men of African and Arab origin who have experienced discriminatory police checks. 

This legal action combined with extensive advocacy by a wide range of civil society actors in France has been crucial in putting this issue on the political agenda.

In 2009, the Justice Initiative published a study of over 500 police stops in Paris over a one-year period and across five locations in and around the Gare du Nord train station and Châtelet-Les Halles commuter rail station.

The data show that blacks 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.

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