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Time to Stop Ethnic Profiling in France

Organizations Initiate Procedure to Push for Reforms to End Widespread Abuses

Police perform a stop during the Covid-19 lockdown in Nice, France, April 8, 2020 © 2020 Eric Gaillard/Reuters

Yesterday in Paris, a bailiff delivered a 145-page letter putting French government ministers on notice about their responsibility to address systemic police discrimination. It’s the first step in a ground-breaking class action procedure brought by six French and international organizations, including Human Rights Watch, to press for the structural reforms needed to end the long-standing scourge of ethnic profiling by police in France.

Human Rights Watch has worked on this issue since 2011, when we first spoke with dozens of French Black and Arab men and boys about their experience of repetitive, baseless, and abusive police stops. These “identity checks” often involve invasive body pat-downs and searches of personal belongings in the middle of the street, becoming, as one man put it, “the root of humiliation.” More recently we spoke with children as young as 12 whose first interaction with the police was also their first experience of discrimination and exclusion.

Ethnic profiling by law enforcement in France is a widespread and well-documented problem. National and international organizations, French human rights institutions, and the United Nations have all called on France to take steps to prevent and punish ethnic or racial discrimination by police officers. In 2016, the highest civil and criminal court ruled that ethnic profiling constitutes a “gross misconduct that engages the responsibility of the state.”

And yet, despite cosmetic changes and rhetoric by successive governments, discriminatory policing has continued with virtual impunity. Acknowledging the problem of ethnic profiling, President Emmanuel Macron recently announced measures, such as standardizing the use of police body cams, which alone, fall far short of what’s needed.

To tackle the problem, the government should change the law to make sure police can only stop and search someone when they have a reasonable, individualized suspicion. There should be a written record of all stops, and specific guidelines for stops involving children. 

Discrimination based on race or ethnicity by police is deeply damaging to individuals and to social cohesion. Cleavages between communities and law enforcement make neighborhoods less safe for everyone and undermine the ability of the police to do their job effectively.

We hope this collective action can lead to a fundamental shift in law and practice, so that people, no matter the color of their skin or their last name, can trust and respect the police rather than fear them.

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