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France: Class Action Lawsuit against Ethnic Profiling

Civil Society Organizations File Case with Council of State over Systemic Racial Discrimination

Police agents check identity documents of passerby during the lockdown in Rennes, France. April 11, 2020.  © 2020 Sipa via AP Images

(Paris) – France has failed to take necessary steps to prevent and remedy ethnic profiling by the police during identity checks, a form of systemic discrimination, six French and international human rights organizations said today in filing a class action lawsuit against the French state.

Antoine Lyon-Caen, a lawyer before France’s Council of State and Court of Cassation, took the case to the Council of State, the highest administrative court in France, on behalf of the Maison Communautaire pour un Dévelopement Solidaire (Community House for Solidarity Development - ­­­­­­MCDS), Pazapas, Réseau Egalité, Antidiscrimination, Justice Interdisciplinaire (Equality, Anti-discrimination, Interdisciplinary Justice Network - Reaji), Amnesty International France, Human Rights Watch, and Open Society Justice Initiative.

The organizations began the procedure in January 2021 when they sent a letter of formal notice to the prime minister, the minister of the interior, and the minister of justice to press for structural reforms and concrete measures to put an end to discriminatory police practices, a problem that has been recognized by the president of the republic. The authorities did not respond in the four-month period provided for under the class action procedure. Their silence is particularly painful for the daily victims of these discriminatory practices, the organizations said.

The class action is an innovative procedure under French law that allows civil society groups to ask the court to order the authorities to take measures to put an end to the widespread illegal practice of ethnic profiling.

The groups are asking the Council of State to find the French state at fault for failing to prevent widespread use of ethnic profiling by the police and to order the authorities to adopt necessary reforms, including:

  • Modify identity check powers to explicitly prohibit discrimination in identity checks, abolish preventive identity checks, and circumscribe police authority to ensure that all identity checks, including those based on a prosecutor’s orders, are based on objective and individual grounds;
  • Adopt specific regulations and instructions for stops targeting children;
  • Create a system to record and evaluate data on identity checks and provide those stopped with a record of the stop;
  • Create an effective, independent complaints mechanism; and
  • Change the institutional objectives, guidelines, and training of the police, including with respect to interactions with the public.

The landmark lawsuit comes after years of inaction by French authorities, who have allowed the unlawful practices to continue, affecting a significant number of people. The case rests on significant evidence that police engage in widespread ethnic profiling based on physical characteristics associated with a real or presumed ethnic or racial origin.

The absence of a strict legal framework that respects legal nondiscrimination standards allows the police to use overly broad powers to conduct identity checks in a discriminatory manner. Quantitative studies have demonstrated that men and boys perceived to be Black or Arab are disproportionately targeted for stop-and-frisk actions, while qualitative reports have documented the devastating impact of discriminatory policing, including on children as young as 12. 

The legal complaint filed on July 22 demonstrates how 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.

Measures adopted that have proved insufficient include 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.

On June 28, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights singled out France for discriminatory police stops in her report on the “Promotion and protection of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of Africans and of people of African descent against excessive use of force and other human rights violations by law enforcement officers.” In the past other UN and European authorities have called on French authorities to end discriminatory identity checks.

On June 8, the Paris Court of Appeals once again condemned the French state for “gross misconduct” for the discriminatory stop of three students in a Paris train station in 2017 as they were returning from a class trip.

The Defender of Rights has repeatedly criticized discriminatory identity checks and called for reform. In 2016, the Court of Cassation ruled that police stops of three young men in 2011 constituted discrimination and “gross misconduct that engages the responsibility of the state.”

The Council of State has the authority to order the state to end these stigmatizing, humiliating, and degrading practices, the organizations said.

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