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(Paris) – French police are using overly broad powers to conduct unwarranted and abusive identity checks on black and Arab young men and boys, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 55-page report, “The Root of Humiliation: Abusive Identity Checks in France,” says that minority youth, including children as young as 13, are subjected to frequent stops involving lengthy questioning, invasive body pat-downs, and the search of personal belongings. These arbitrary stops can take place even in the absence of any indication of wrongdoing, Human Rights Watch found. Insulting language, including racial slurs, are not uncommon, and some stops involve excessive use of force by the police.

“It’s shocking that young black and Arab kids can be, and are, arbitrarily forced up against walls and manhandled by the police with no real evidence of wrongdoing,” said Judith Sunderland, senior Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. “But if you are a young person in some neighborhoods in France, it’s a part of life.”

The report draws on dozens of interviews with French citizens belonging to minority groups, including 31 children, in Paris, Lyon, and Lille. 

Under French law, police have wide discretion to carry out identity checks without any suspicion of criminal wrongdoing, including in transport hubs and in any area designated by a prosecutor. The stops are not systematically recorded by police, and those stopped do not receive any written documentation explaining or recording the incident. Most of those interviewed by Human Rights Watch had never been told the grounds for the many stops they had experienced. The lack of records makes it very difficult to assess the effectiveness or lawfulness of a stop, Human Rights Watch said.

The testimony in the report adds to statistical and anecdotal evidence indicating that police in France use ethnic profiling ­– making decisions about whom to stop based on appearance, including race and ethnicity, rather than on an individual’s actual behavior or a reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing.  

Farid A., a 16-year-old from Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois, outside Paris, said he and five friends were stopped three times near the Eiffel Tower: “We came out of the metro, a check. We walk 200 meters, another check. We walk 200 meters, and another check.  There were a lot of people, but they stopped only us.”

A 2009 study by the Open Society Justice Initiative and the French National Center for Scientific Research found that in France, black people were six times as likely as white people, and Arabs almost eight times as likely, to be stopped. Many of those interviewed by Human Rights Watch were convinced that their ethnicity, combined with a manner of dress associated with the banlieues ­– a term used to describe economically disadvantaged suburbs of major cities – played a major role. 

“Stopping people because of the color of their skin is a waste of police resources and breeds resentment against the police,” Sunderland said. “Police operations should be based on evidence and intelligence, not stereotypes.”

Once stopped, minority youth are often forced to undergo humiliating pat-downs and searches of their personal belongings. Pat-downs can be very invasive – Said, a 25-year-old in Lyon, told us, “They touch our private parts more and more” – and many of those interviewed complained about them. Law enforcement officials defend the pat-downs as a necessary security measure, but their use, though systematic, is not regulated clearly in French law.

Human Rights Watch also heard several disturbing accounts of violence during identity checks, including people who said they had been slapped, kicked, and hit with an electroshock weapon. 

Ismael Y, a 17-year-old boy in a southern banlieue of Paris, was stopped with a group of friends by the police outside the Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois commuter train station in early 2011. “When we were there with our hands against the wall, I turned toward him [the officer who was frisking him] and he hit me on the head. I said something like why are you hitting me, and he said to shut up, ‘You want a shot of [tear] gas or what?’”

Failure to cooperate during an identity check, asking too many questions, or objecting to the treatment can lead to administrative or criminal charges, including “insulting an officer.” This adds a coercive dimension to identity checks and inhibits people from asserting their rights, Human Rights Watch said.

Yassine, a 19-year-old in Lille, said police officers kicked him after he proved to them where he had spent the evening during an identity check. He then spent 15 hours in the police station on charges of insulting an officer before they dropped the charges and released him.

Abusive identity checks have a deeply negative impact on police-community relations, Human Rights Watch said. Pent-up anger over police abuses, including heavy-handed identity checks, played a major role in the 2005 riots in France and appears to underlie countless lower-intensity conflicts between police and young people in urban areas across the country.

Experiences of repeated stops throughout the day or being singled out of crowds reinforce the sense among minority youth that they are targeted, Human Rights Watch said.

Disrespectful behavior by the police, including the routine use of the familiar “tu” (“you”) and insults, heighten resentment. People interviewed for the report spoke of being called “dirty Arab” and “Arab bastard.” One 19-year-old in Lille told us he had been called “dirty Arab” so many times, “it doesn’t shock us anymore – it’s normal.” A 13-year-old boy in Évry, outside Paris, told us a police officer called him a “dirty negro.”

International and French law prohibit discrimination, unjustified interference with the right to privacy, and violations of dignity and the right to physical integrity. International and national standards also require respectful treatment by the police.

Human Rights Watch called on the French government to acknowledge the problems with identity check powers, and to adopt legal and policy reforms to prevent ethnic profiling and abusive treatment during stops. All identity checks and pat-downs should be based on a reasonable, individualized suspicion. Anyone stopped should receive written proof, with relevant information including their personal information, the officers involved, and the legal basis for the stop.

The police should also record all stops internally, and the government should publish disaggregated data on a regular basis. Discrimination by law enforcement officers should be explicitly forbidden.

“Frankly, police-community relations in France are dismal, and everyone knows it,” Sunderland said. “Taking concrete steps to prevent abusive identity checks – one of the main sources of tension – would be a real step forward and would make a genuine difference in people’s daily lives.”

Voices from the report

Ouamar C., 13 years old, Paris:

I was sitting with some friends…and they came to do a stop. I didn’t talk because if you talk they take you downtown. They opened my bag. They searched my body too. Like every time. They didn’t find anything on me. That was the first time it happened in front of my school. They say, ‘Up against the wall.’ They search, and when it’s over they say thank-you and leave…I was scared at first, now I’m getting used to it.

Haroun A., 14 years old, Bobigny:

I was at the shopping mall with some friends having fun. They [the police] come with their weapons and point them at us. There were three of them. They said: ‘Identity check.’ Two of them had their Flash-Balls [a gun that shoots rubber bullets] in their hands. There were five or six of us. We weren’t doing anything. They just stop us all the time like that. When there’s a group of us, they stop us right away. They asked if we had stuff.  They put us against the wall. They search even in our socks and shoes.  They didn’t find anything. They don’t always ask for our papers.

Halim B., 17 years old, Lille:

The bus stops and the police come on. I was sitting in the back. It was 7:20 in the morning. The bus was full…They pointed to one guy and said, ‘You get up and get off with us.’ I was watching. I thought he was a criminal. And then they pointed at me to get off too. Three people had to get off, and two of them were Arabs. The bus was full. There were plenty of people standing. There were more [white] French on the bus…They [the police] have the right to do these checks whenever they like but honestly I was upset. I felt like I was a burglar, a wanted criminal. I was scared when they told me to get off. I wondered what I’d done. When I got off [the bus], they said, ‘contrôle [identity check], do you have anything illegal on you, empty your pockets.’ They searched my bag and then let me go. I got to school a bit late.  Honestly, I wasn’t poorly dressed or anything, I was going to school. 

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