A Paris court issued a terrible blow to the struggle against abusive and discriminatory identity checks yesterday. In rulings in 13 different cases in which black and Arab French citizens alleged police had used ethnic profiling to stop and search them, a panel of three judges said, non, this is fine.

Basically the court said that the plaintiffs had failed to prove “gross negligence” by the police in the course of their duties, the test the judges adopted following the government’s arguments. Quite difficult to prove, considering overly broad police powers to stop people without reasonable suspicion, and the lack of any kind of record of the stop. The government of President François Hollande, which was elected on a platform that included a pledge to tackle ethnic profiling and abusive identity checks, briefly flirted with the idea of reforms, in particular introducing stop forms, before retreating in the face of police union opposition.

In toeing the government’s line, the court effectively ignored EU and international norms that shift the burden of proof in discrimination cases once it has been shown that someone is being treated differently due to their race. It doesn’t help that French law excludes policing from its antidiscrimination laws. The judges said it was not up to its court to comment on the state’s responsibility for questionable laws. 

Think about that for a minute...

French justice has failed the countless blacks and Arabs whom police regularly and repeatedly stop without cause. The lawyers will appeal, but the court got one thing right: much is up to French lawmakers. This disgraceful ruling cannot stand as cover for shameful laws and practices. Parliament should limit police stop powers to require a reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing in all cases, and introduce stop forms to improve police accountability and efficiency. Proper police training is key, as is a genuine police-population dialogue to move from a culture of suspicion to a culture of trust.