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Des agents de police contrôlent les documents d'identité de passants pendant le confinement à Rennes, en France. Le 11 avril 2020.

Why NGOs are Suing France for Police Discrimination

"These abusive police stops make me feel like a second-class citizen”

Des agents de police contrôlent les documents d'identité de passants pendant le confinement à Rennes, en France. Le 11 avril 2020. © 2020 Sipa via AP Images

Because France has failed to prevent and correct ethnic profiling by police during identity checks, six French and international human rights organizations are taking the issue to court. Omer Mas Capitolin, president of Maison communautaire pour un développement solidaire (Community House for Solidarity Development or MCDS) is one of them. Living in the working-class Paris neighborhood of Belleville, he has worked for over 20 years to end police discrimination. Lea Pernot spoke with Mas Capitolin about his experience being harassed by police, the consequences of this abuse, and what led him to undertake this lawsuit.

What is an identity check and what is your experience with it?

Omer Mas Capitolin ©

An identity check is when a citizen is stopped by police officers in a public space to check his or her papers. These stops are often done according to the supposed national origin of the person and are accompanied by pat-downs. If you dare asking the police officer the reason for the check, you are very often charged with "insult to a public official" or “rebellion.”

The last identity check that terrorized me was June last year. I was crossing the Gare de Lyon in Paris when I was stopped for no reason, by police officers who asked me for my papers. I asked the policewoman the reason for the stop and she did not give me any explanation. To avoid trouble, I showed my ID and left without her indicating that I had committed any offense. Three weeks later, I was unpleasantly surprised to receive three fines, one for not wearing the anti-covid mask, another for travelling without a certificate on public transport [public transport use was restricted during the pandemic] and the third for night-time disturbance. Everything was wrong: I had been wearing a mask, I was not on public transport but walking through the station, and I was stopped in the middle of the afternoon, which makes the offence of night-time disturbance absurd. I contested these fines and finally won the case. The reality is that there was no objective reason to stop me, that officers are bound by numerical targets for identity checks, and that the officer thought, "Let’s get a black guy.”

This really reinforced my feeling of being a second-class citizen. I really experienced this check as a degradation ceremony.

What makes you believe these discriminatory controls are "systemic"?

The problem is systemic because it is not the result of the behavior of a few officers, but is rooted in France's colonial history, in racist prejudices, and in laws that encourage ethnic profiling. Police officers are not necessarily racist, but the orders they receive lead to discriminatory behavior.

The so-called administrative identity checks, the most common ones, allow the police to check without any particular reason for doing so. They are largely carried out in working-class neighborhoods with a large population of people of color. It is as if there is a desire to ensure that a segment of the population does not receive equal treatment in terms of identity checks and police interactions. 

For years, despite the French justice system condemning the state for doing so, despite the denunciations of national and international institutions, despite the work of associations that document these practices, despite the deaths that have occurred in link with these checks, nothing has changed.

What are the consequences of abusive police checks on those who are subjected to them on a daily basis?

It generates anger, hatred, a devaluation of oneself, degrades the feeling of belonging to the Republic of France and reinforces the feeling of not being fully considered as a French citizen.

Let's take the example of a boy I support with my association. On his way home last week, he was accosted by a policeman who sprayed him with tear gas and insulted him without even asking him for his papers. This boy knows full well that this discrimination is linked to two things: his skin color and the fact that he lives in a so-called "working class" neighborhood. It’s about his social status. Being caught in this double bind is very tiring. And, when it is happens regularly, when you have to endure the beating, the insults, when you don’t say anything to avoid risking accusations of insulting an officer, it becomes really unbearable and hurts the country’s national cohesion.

Why did you commit yourself to this cause?

One day in December 2001, there was a police check in the street in front of my association where we were having a meeting. The police intervention was so violent that it shook the windows of our premises, so I went out to ask the police to move. The police officers then entered our premises, asked me for my papers, then handcuffed me. They took me outside where a policeman started to choke me. He squeezed my throat so hard that I couldn't breathe or speak. I felt that I was starting to lose consciousness, but then the association’s director finally intervened. When I was put in the police car, the policeman slapped me twice. Other leaders of the association were taken to the police station. After this, we wrote to the Minister of the Interior but never got an answer. We filed a complaint, but it was never followed up. This extremely violent event was at the origin of my commitment.

What have you and your association done since then to end ethnic profiling?

At the beginning, we looked at the actions that had already been taken in the past and abroad, particularly in the United States. We organized roundtables on the subject, but I quickly came to the conclusion that we needed to use the law. We also needed to change mentalities and move towards solutions that not only allowed us to be inclusive but that integrated the systemic aspect of the problem. Together with lawyers and NGOs including Human Rights Watch and Open Society Justice Initiative, we set up a coalition to stop ethnic profiling. The first trials followed. The first one took place in 2012 with fifteen young people who filed a complaint against the state. I attended the hearings and remember particularly violent comments from the opposing side, implying that, because of our skin color, we were anxiety-provoking and criminally inclined people. After years, the trial finally resulted in an extremely important decision by the Court of Cassation in 2016. It recognized the reality of ethnic profiling, which the institutions had denied until then. Since then, there have been other convictions of the state.

These lawsuits were a way to give kids and other citizens suffering from discrimination confidence in the institutions. Today, our class action suit before the Council of State is part of the same approach: It seeks to contribute to change, to make things evolve. We are not accusing anyone, we are saying that there is a problem and that it must be solved.

This action could also keep young people from being overwhelmed by anger, to prevent them from using violent means to try to recover the dignity taken away through these abuses. For me, it is an emancipatory tool.

What do you expect from this group action?

I expect this action to oblige the country to reform, to comply with international law and with its Constitution: "All citizens are born free and equal in law". We want to contribute to changing society so that it is fairer, more equal and more ethical, and to demonstrate to the rest of the population that by using the law, by asking the justice system to decide, we can force the country to put an end to the abuse. I am aware that my ancestors who were slaves fought for their freedom and to be recognized as human beings – not as chattels belonging to owners. It is because they fought with their lives that I am not in a cotton field today. This class action allows for debate in society with the victims and the citizens who observe. It can bring a response to a young person who has just been stopped, who has been humiliated, whose genitals have been patted down, whose phone has been searched violating his privacy, who has been exposed to the stares of passers-by, who has been sent the message that he may be a criminal or a delinquent. It could show him that we are trying to make things change.

*This interview has been edited and condensed. 

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