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Events of 2020

French police violently dismantled a tent camp set up to shelter migrants on Place de la République in Paris on November 23, 2020.

© Martin Bureau/AFP via Getty Images

Announced changes in law enforcement and crowd control tactics fell short of addressing concerns of abusive and disproportionate use of force by the police, including during demonstrations. Discriminatory police identity checks targeting minority youth continued. Child protection authorities often failed to provide unaccompanied migrant children appropriate care and services. Migrants and asylum seekers faced inhuman and degrading living conditions, as well as police abuse and harassment. Instances of harassment and attacks remained high against minorities, including ethnic, religious, national, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) minorities.

In its October rule of law report, the European Commission flagged that the efficiency of civil justice has deteriorated in recent years and that France adheres to media pluralism and independence, despite a surge of online and offline threats against journalists.

Read a text description of this video

Boubacar Dramé:

I’ve had to undergo identity checks (from the police), I can’t tell you how many times. The first [time], I was 12 years old, it was next to a school. They pushed us up against the wall, I remember how disrespectfully they spoke to us. It was a relationship that started badly.



Face the wall. The wall is behind you. Take your hands out of your pockets. Please empty your pockets, thank you. All of your personal items on the windowsill.


TEXT: French police use broad powers to stop and search Black and Arab youth for “identity checks”


TEXT: Police target children as young as 10 years old


Valoua Touré:

We see abusive police stops every day, especially growing up here [Bobigny] I saw a lot of them. The first time I experienced a police stop, I must have been 10 years old. I was leaving my house, which is just over there. We were children, and the first experience we had with the police, the first contact, is a police officer aiming his weapon at you. It's scary. We were terrified.


“Jamal”, 13 years old:
I’ve been stopped twice. The first time, I was 9 or 10 years old. I thought that it wasn't normal that the police body search 10-year-old children.


“Amir”, 17 years old:

It's really prejudiced. For [the police], we come from bad neighborhoods. Just based on your last name, sometimes they say you’re up to something.


Slim Ben Achour, Anti-discrimination lawyer:
In the poor neighborhoods, the police officers often know the kids that they stop, they even call them by their first or last name. So it’s an identity check that is misused because they check the identities of people they already know.


Hasnia Djerbi:
I could feel something, he didn't tell me straight away, but he was a bit... I mean, he was talking less, I learned some time later that he was stopped by the police and... Suspected of having drugs, he ended up in socks on the pavement in front of everyone in the center of Grenoble.


Slim Ben Achour, Anti-discrimination lawyer:
Identity checks in France, are in reality appearance based. No matter their behavior, a person can be stopped for a fear of a risk of breaching the public order. In today’s France, a skin tone can be considered a risk.


Hasnia Djerbi:

In the end, all it takes is a police stop like that, where your son is humiliated, and they make him feel that no, he is not a part of [society]. And that’s terrible for a mother.


Bakary Soukouna:
There are immediate consequences for the youth because it builds resentment, mistrust towards institutions. These kids are human, they have feelings. They respect who respects them and that includes the police.


Annick Bousba:
Now when my son sees a police car, he feels in danger. We can’t build a society where children are scared of police, where children are scared of the law, because for them, the police represent the law.



This is a state of law, it’s the Republic of France. During a police stop, you shut up and obey.


Slim Ben Achour, Anti-discrimination lawyer:

The French police operates in opacity, there are never any control receipts. If you make the allegation of having experienced a discriminatory identity check, the state can say that it never occurred. And as long as we haven’t decided to speak seriously about these problems, we will be exposed to the dramatic consequences. The death of kids, or rupture with the republic’s institutions.


Annick Bousba:

There should absolutely be laws protecting youth from abusive identity checks, and that regulate how they are checked. In my opinion, that’s the easiest thing, and yet it’s taking the longest to get done.


France’s state of health emergency, declared in March in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, was criticized by rights groups, lawyers, magistrates, and the Human Rights Consultative Commission for giving excessive power to the executive branch to restrict freedoms. Lockdown was imposed from March 16 to May 11. The law lifting the state of emergency in July maintained some emergency powers. On October 17, the state of emergency was declared again. Parliament adopted a law extending the state of health emergency until February 16. Lockdown was imposed again on October 30, for at least four weeks.

In March, the government adopted a massive aid plan for companies, employees, and independent workers and ensured the right to parental leave for childcare. The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Secours Populaire estimated in September that one out of three people had lost income since the first lockdown and millions of people faced poverty. The unemployment insurance agency (Unedic) expected 420,000 additional unemployed persons in 2020 compared to 2019. The government extended the normal winter evictions ban until July 10.

Schools were closed for 14 weeks, during which the government organized online classes, but children have unequal access to computers and the internet. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) France and other groups pointed to the disproportionate impact of school closures on children in child protection structures and living in precarious situations. In April, the education minister said that 15 to 25 percent of children in overseas departments were falling behind in school during lockdown compared to 4 percent of students in metropolitan France.

In mid-April, the government extended the legal timeframe for medical abortion at home from seven to nine weeks to minimize hospital visits during the pandemic.

Law Enforcement and Police Abuse

In September, the Interior Ministry published a new National Scheme for Law Enforcement, following criticism of police crowd control and anti-riot tactics during demonstrations in 2018 and 2019. It replaces the controversial GLI-F4 tear gas grenade by a non-explosive grenade, called GM2L, which releases tear gas while having a deafening effect and has also been criticized by rights groups. The scheme fails to ban the use of other weapons, such as rubber bullet launchers, which have injured thousands of people, despite calls from the French ombudsperson and rights groups. Journalists and rights groups raised concerns about new rules that could hamper the ability to observe and report on demonstrations.

Discriminatory police identity checks continued, including during the enforcement of Covid-19 lockdown measures. Human Rights Watch found that police target minority youth, including children as young as 12, for the stops, which often involve invasive, humiliating body pat-downs and searches of personal belongings.

Following demonstrations against police abuse in France, President Emmanuel Macron said he wanted to generalize the wearing of body cameras by police officers by the end of his term in 2022. Rights groups and lawyers have long stressed that body cameras alone are not an effective means of combating ethnic profiling.

Unaccompanied Migrant Children’s Rights

The French National Human Rights Consultative Commission (CNCDH) and the French Ombudsperson said authorities do not guarantee to unaccompanied migrant children access to basic rights and the care to which they are entitled. Child protection authorities in different regions of the country failed to provide shelter and other essential services even during the Covid-19 pandemic, putting them at further risk.

In April, a court ordered authorities in Marseille and Gap to provide unaccompanied children with shelter, more than a month after lockdown measures were implemented. On March 30, the European Court for Human Rights (ECtHR) ordered France to provide a Guinean boy “housing and food until the end of the [COVID-19] lockdown” after he ended up on the streets when authorities refused to recognize him as a child.

Unaccompanied children camped in a Paris park for a month in July before the authorities gave them shelter in a gymnasium and a few weeks later in a hotel. At time of writing, they were still awaiting placement in permanent accommodations.

In June, the ECtHR ruled against France for detaining and deporting in November 2013 two unaccompanied children, aged 3 and 5 at the time, from Mayotte, a French overseas department, to Comoros.

France committed in May to welcome 350 unaccompanied children from overcrowded and unsuitable refugee camps on the Greek Aegean islands by the end of the year. In late August, it relocated the first 49 children. After a fire destroyed the Moria camp on Lesbos in early September, France announced it will relocate up to 150 additional children. In November, it relocated 54 children.

Migrants and Asylum Seekers’ Rights

In July, the ECtHR ruled that France violated the rights of three asylum seekers in depriving them material and financial support to which they were entitled, forcing them to live in the streets in “inhuman and degrading living conditions.”

In Calais, NGOs providing assistance to migrants and asylum seekers reported continued harassment and abuse by police against migrants and aid workers. In September, the interior minister prohibited food distribution by NGOs not authorized or contracted by the State through December 14. The French Ombudsperson said the measure constitutes “discrimination based on nationality.”

France continued to detain people in immigration detention centers during the pandemic despite calls in March from the French Ombudsperson and the General Controller for Prisons for their closure given the risks of contracting Covid-19 and the fact that deportations could not be carried out in a reasonable timeframe due to travel restrictions. In September, the government announced it would use a detention center outside Paris for people who tested positive for the virus that causes Covid-19 while they awaited deportation.

Discrimination and Intolerance

In June, the CNCDH published data on bias crimes in 2019 from the Interior Ministry: racist acts increased by almost 57 percent compared to 2018, with anti-Semitic acts increasing by 27 percent, anti-Muslim acts by 54 percent, and “all other racist acts” by 131 percent. The ministry’s statistics unit recorded 5,350 victims of offenses due to ethnicity, nationality, religion, or race in 2019, an increase of 11 percent over 2018.

In May, the ECtHR ruled that France breached the rights to private and family life and to an effective remedy of several Roma families when it dismantled the informal settlement where they lived outside Paris without offering alternative accommodation.

Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

In June, SOS Homophobie, an NGO, said it received 26 percent more reports of physical and verbal abuse targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex people for 2019 compared to 2018. The number of recorded physical attacks against transgender people increased by 130 percent.

In August, the National Assembly adopted a bill allowing lesbian couples and single women to access fertility treatments available currently only to heterosexual couples. The bill, under examination in the Senate at time of writing, excludes transgender persons from these treatments.

Women’s Rights

Rights groups and feminist organizations, as well as a Senate report, point to the lack of resources allocated to implement government measures announced in 2019 against domestic violence. According to French authorities, reports of domestic violence rose by more than 30 percent during the first week of lockdown. Service providers and women’s rights groups said the government response did not ensure adequate support for victims during the pandemic. By December, 90 women had been killed by a current or former intimate partner in 2020. In July, Parliament approved a law increasing sentences for perpetrators whose actions led to a victim’s suicide or attempted suicide and permitting doctors to break patient confidentiality in cases where they believe there is immediate danger to a victim’s life.

In April, the CNCDH called on France to ratify by the end of 2020 International Labour Organization C190 Convention concerning the elimination of violence and harassment in the world of work.

In October, the National Assembly adopted a bill, before the Senate at time of writing, extending the legal deadline for abortion on any grounds from 12 to 14 weeks. 

Rights of Persons with Disabilities

In July, the French Ombudsperson welcomed progress on implementation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, such as guarantees of the rights to vote and marry for all adults living under some form of guardianship, while pointing at shortcomings, particularly in terms of accessibility of infrastructure open to the public, housing, public transport, and online public services. In 2019, 23 percent of the ombudsperson’s cases concerned discrimination based on disability.


In January, the ECtHR found that detention conditions amounted to cruel and degrading treatment in a joined case involving 32 inmates in 6 prisons. The court ordered France to take action to end overcrowding, improve general conditions, and establish an effective preventive remedy for inmates to seek redress.

In October, the Constitutional Court ruled that French legislators should pass a new law by March 2021 allowing people in pretrial detention to enforce their right that their conditions of incarceration do not violate human dignity.

Between mid-March and late May, during Covid-19 lockdown measures, around 7,000 detainees serving short sentences were released as part of measures to reduce crowding and prevent further spread of the disease.


In August, the Constitutional Court struck down a provision in a 2020 security law that imposed restrictions on freedom of movement and other security measures on persons convicted for terrorism offenses after they served their prison sentence.

In April, France repatriated a seriously ill 7-year-old French girl from a locked camp holding family members of Islamic State (ISIS) suspects in northeast Syria, followed in June by a group of 10 children.

Taking a case-by-case approach, French authorities have brought back a total of 28 French children since March 2019, leaving more than 250 French children and their mothers in indefinite and arbitrary detention in deeply degrading, and often inhuman and life-threatening conditions, despite calls by France’s independent rights institutions and UN bodies for their repatriation. France continued to refuse to repatriate French men and boys detained without judicial review in northeast Syria for suspected ISIS links.   

In September, the trial of 14 people for the January 2015 attacks against the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket began in Paris. Later that month, a man stabbed two people outside the newspaper’s former office. In October, a man beheaded a history teacher who had shown caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in a class on freedom of expression. At the end of the month, three people were killed and several were injured in a knife attack inside a church in Nice. The government responded by announcing it would close some mosques and Muslim associations, and deport foreigners it deemed “radicalized.”

Environment and Human Rights

A group of 15 children lodged a United Nations complaint against France and four other countries for its lagging efforts to fight the global climate crisis. The government disputed that the complaint falls within the jurisdiction of the child rights treaty. France’s independent High Council for the Climate reported that France is not on track to meet its emissions reductions target.

Foreign Policy

France claimed multilateralism, human rights, and international humanitarian law as key priorities for its diplomacy but the record is mixed.

France played an active role at the UN Security Council to try to secure access to humanitarian aid in Syria, and backed the efforts at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to investigate chemical attacks by Syrian government forces. In June and September, it also defended the International Criminal Court against attacks by the Trump administration and firmly condemned unprecedented US sanctions against court officials.

In October, France was elected for a three-year membership term at the UN Human Rights Council. As an observer state for most of the year, France showed little leadership on addressing specific human rights situations and was sometimes slow to endorse resolutions and joint statements proposed by others, such as on China, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen.

France increased its military presence in the Sahel amid continued attacks by armed Islamist groups against civilians, including French aid workers, and serious human rights abuses by security forces and affiliated militias in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger.

France continued to sell arms to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates despite risks they could be used against civilians in Yemen. It also provided unconditional military and strategic support to the government of Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, despite its dismal human rights record.

France has slowly emerged from its silence over China’s attacks on human rights but failed to take concrete measures. In July, France criticized the National Security Law in Hong Kong and in September, President Macron called for a UN mission to go to Xinjiang.

In August, Macron co-hosted with the UN a donors’ conference to mobilize international aid for the Lebanese people after the explosion at Beirut’s port and pressed Lebanese political leaders to commit to a roadmap of structural reforms, including to fight corruption.

President Macron took a strong stance against the flawed elections in Belarus in August and expressed support for the peaceful demonstrators. In September, France supported the triggering of inquiries into abuses committed in Belarus at the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the UN Human Rights Council.

In August, France condemned the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and called on Russia to investigate.

In September, France reiterated its position against ratifying the European Union-Mercosur trade agreement until concerns regarding deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon were addressed.