France’s police threatened with lawsuit by human rights groups over ‘racist’ identity checks

Six NGOs filed a formal notice to the French government on Wednesday demanding an end to what they said was racial profiling by police through identity checks, or else face a class action.

France's police threatened with lawsuit by human rights groups over 'racist' identity checks
A protester holds up a placard reading 'the police assassinates' during one of several anti-police brutality protests in Paris over the summer of 2020. Photo: AFP

The class action is a first in France, carried out by six international and French human rights organisations including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

The NGOs accused French police of engaging in “longstanding and widespread ethnic profiling that constitutes systemic discrimination”.

“Despite incontrovertible evidence that French police have for many years engaged in systematic discrimination in carrying out identity checks, and commitments by successive governments to address the problem, nothing has changed,” the NGOs said in the formal notice sent to the French government, giving them four months to respond.

The warning letter – 350 pages thick – included testimonies of people saying to have been victims of ethnic profiling during identity checks in nine French cities including Paris, Lyon and Toulouse, as well as police officers denouncing identity checks as “useless”.

Identity checks specifically and police racism more broadly have been matters of fierce debate for years in France, which gained strength in the summer of 2020 after George Floyd died at the hands of police in the United States.

Thousands of protesters in France disregarded Covid-19 health advice and took to the streets following the killing to protest against racially motivated police brutality, which they said was a French problem too.

READ ALSO: Who is Adama Traore and why are there protests across France in his name?


Police in France have long vehemently denied accusations of institutional racism, both generally and through identity checks. One union decried the lawsuit as unjust and biased.

“It's a bit too easy to denounce systemic control on the basis of spurious, truncated, very biased reports,” Alternative Police Union wrote in a press statement.

Denouncing the class action “political and dogmatic manoeuvre” by actors known for their “anti-police” attitudes, Alternative Police said it was an attempt to turn the interior ministry against the police just as France embarked on national conversations to improve their relationship with the country's citizens.

ANALYSIS: How did France's relationship with its own police get so bad?


Police officers in France threw their handcuffs on the ground in protest after the French government considered to ban a controversial “chokehold” tactic in June 2020. Photo: AFP

President Emmanuel Macron launched the talks, known in France as “Beauvau de la sécurité”, after three police officers were caught on video brutally beating up a Black musician in Paris.

The NGOs demanded that, during these talks, the government “tackle the specific problem of discriminatory identity checks and its deep causes, in a serious way to end these abuses, in line with France’s obligations under national and international law.”

“Deep structural reforms are needed to address this systemic discrimination,” they said. 

The French Republic was founded on principle of universalism that effectively bans public institutions from collecting data of ethnicity or religion.

Enacted to protect minorities from discrimination, critics have said for years that this “colour-blind” policy has become counterproductive, causing the state to be blind to racism rather than skin colour.

ANALYSIS: Is France really 'colour-blind' or just blind to racism?

French police have been at the forefront of the debate, as their identity checks are based on a person's appearance, but – due to the principle of universalism – they do not keep records of ethnicity of the people checked.

A study carried out in 2009 in Paris by the Open Society Justice Initiative and French state research body CNRS showed that black people were six times more likely to be stopped for their ID than whites.

People with features seen as “Arab” were eight times more likely to be asked to show their papers.

In a more recent report in 2017, the French rights ombudsman said that young men “seen as black or Arab” were 20 times more likely to be asked for ID than young white men.

One man included in the NGOs letter said to have experienced ethnic profiling by the police repeatedly since he turned 16, “sometimes three times a day.”

During a recent stop, he said, the police “violently pinned me up against the wall. One of the officers touched my private parts. Then he hit me in the stomach and called me a ‘dirty Arab’.”

Rights groups have long called for people targeted by ID checks to be given a receipt which they could produce to avoid being asked repeatedly for their papers.

The prime minister, interior minister and justice minister – all specifically targeted by the NGOs – have four months to respond to their demands.

Member comments

  1. Is it any wonder that Poland and Hungary balk at following the EU’s diktat on immigration? What country, given a fresh start, would opt for such out of control and unmanageable levels of immigration from countries with cultures so unsuited to the European way of life?

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Local heroes recount French knife attack

One young man used his rucksack as an improvised shield; two council workers ran towards the danger; French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday met the ordinary heroes who confronted the Annecy knife attacker.

Local heroes recount French knife attack

A “pilgrim”, two council workers and a maths teacher all played a part in chasing off the man who stabbed several toddlers in a playground in the Alpine town of Annecy.

Their intervention probably prevented more people being hurt in the attack.

Macron met all four after he had visited some of the seriously wounded children in hospital, a day after the shock stabbing in the Alpine town of Annecy.

“I did what any French person should do,” 24-year-old Henri told Cnews TV channel on Friday morning.

A video circulating on social media and verified by AFP shows Henri using his rucksack to try and parry the knife attacks and then pursing the assailant as he sought to flee police.

“I didn’t even think,” Henri told BFM broadcaster. “My brain went onto automatic pilot.

“It was just unthinkable to let someone who appeared to be completely crazy attack defenceless beings like that.”

“I could tell he wasn’t in a normal state,” Henri said of the attacker, described as a Syrian Christian in his early 30s who had been granted refugee status in Sweden.

“I sensed there was something very bad inside him and it was vital to stop him… You do what you can with what you have and what I had was my little rucksack.”

Henri describes himself on his Instagram account as “a lover of cathedrals, touring France on foot for nine months”.

The hashtag #MerciHenri, hailing the “rucksack hero”, has become very popular on the social media accounts of far-right militants, who have seized on the suspect’s origins.

‘We got a spade’

The mayor of Annecy, a normally idyllic lakeside spot popular with tourists, praised the “courage” of two council workers who were in the park at the time of the attack.

“We were emptying some containers when we heard cries coming from the children’s playground. People were calling for help,” one of the workers told regional daily Dauphine Libere.

“We saw the bloke coming towards us. He was all in black, with this scarf on his head.

“We grabbed what we had to hand — a spade — and went towards him.

“My colleague tried to hit him or disarm him with the spade but he was pretty strong and fast.

“He tried to stab my mate. The blade went just a few centimetres from his face. We had to move back,” he recalled.

The worker, whose name was not given, said his greatest regret was “not managing to get him with the spade”.

Eulalie, 17, praised the reaction of her maths teacher, who was in the park with the class on a mini field trip.

“He was great because he just went for it,” the schoolgirl told AFP.

“He and another man with a bag stood in the way,” she explained. That had distracted the attacker and potentially saved several children.

Her own first reaction, she said, had been to call the emergency services.

“You don’t run away. You try to be efficient. That’s how my brain works. It’s an individual thing.”