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

(Paris) – There has been serious unrest across France for the past week after police killed French 17-year-old boy of North African descent in a traffic stop. The incident has reignited discussion over police violence and discrimination in the country. Ethnic profiling by the police is a well-documented widespread problem in France. Human Rights Watch joined five other groups (Amnesty International France, MCDS, Open society Justice Initiative, Pazapas Belleville, and REAJI) on July 5, 2023, in urging the French government to reform the system for police stops to eliminate racial profiling and other discriminatory practices. The following is their statement:

Discrimination: When Will the Denial End?

In addition to the particularly lax rules governing police use of their weapons during a traffic stop, the current dramatic situation in France has brought back into the public debate the all-too-often discriminatory nature of police interaction with a segment of the population. The government should take urgent action to reform the system of police stops.

Numerous national and international studies have documented these illegal practices. The French state has been condemned on several occasions by domestic courts for the widespread practice of ethnic profiling during police stops. These stops are one of the components of discrimination by the police that poisons the daily lives of so many people in France, and poisons relations between the population and law enforcement.

These practices are not only illegal under French and international human rights law, but they are above all violent, humiliating, and degrading, and make those who experience them feel like second-class citizens.

In December 2020, in response to the legitimate emotion provoked by the beating of Michel Zecler, the French President himself described racial profiling as “unbearable,” finally giving a faint glimmer of hope that the French State was going to tackle the roots of this phenomenon.

This hope was quickly extinguished, as no structural response was forthcoming from the authorities.

On July 22, 2021, six associations (Amnesty International France, Human Rights Watch, MCDS, Open society Justice Initiative, Pazapas Belleville, and REAJI) filed a class action suit with the Council of State, (Conseil d'État) France’s highest administrative court, to finally put an end to racial profiling, given the inaction of the French authorities on the issue, who have allowed these illegal and devastating practices to continue for too many years. The case is still pending.

Through this action, the associations are asking the Conseil d'État to acknowledge the government’s serious failure in allowing ethnic profiling during identity checks to continue. Systemic racism in the police forces, and the widespread and persistent discriminatory practices demonstrate a deeply rooted public policy. It is important to note that these practices are the product of a system that encourages them and cannot be seen as the sole act of isolated officers who have abandoned their professional and ethical obligations. To put an end to this, the associations are asking the Conseil d'État to require the French authorities to take the necessary measures to remedy the situation, in particular:

  • Reform identity checks. With all forms of discrimination prohibited under French law, administrative identity checks – preventive checks aimed at maintaining public order, authorized regardless of a person’s conduct – should be abolished and the conditions for the use of judiciary checks should be strengthened, so that they can only be based on objective, individualized suspicion and no longer on the basis of physical characteristics linked to origin, whether real or assumed;
  • Adopt specific measures and instructions for identity checks targeting children;
  • Set up a system for providing anyone subject to a police stop with proof that they were stopped, and for officials to evaluate whether the police stop was legitimate;
  • Create an independent and effective complaints mechanism;
  • Modify institutional objectives, guidelines, and police training, particularly with regard to interactions with the public.

An open letter signed by 84 associations, collectives, and trade unions stressed the urgent need “to put an end to this scourge” and noted that the young people targeted by these discriminatory controls and their families, live “in fear that a future control will be accompanied by violence and that their name will become the next hashtag in a 'Justice and Truth' campaign.”

The associations that filed the suit are represented before the Conseil d'Etat by Me Antoine Lyon-Caen.

For more information about the measures we are calling for, please visit the MaRueMesDroits website:

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