In a first for France, six non-governmental organizations on Wednesday launched a class action lawsuit against the French government for alleged systemic discrimination by police officers carrying out identity checks.
Organizations, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, say French police use racial profiling during identity checks, targeting blacks and people of Arab descent.
They served Prime Minister Jean Castex and France’s Home Affairs and Justice Ministers with legal notice of demands for concrete action and far-reaching law enforcement reforms to ensure that racial profiling does not determine who is arrested by the police.
The organizations, which also include the Open Society Justice Initiative and three French grassroots groups, plan to clarify the legal initiative at a press conference in Paris.
The issue of racial profiling by French police has been debated for years, including but not limited to the practice of officers carrying out identity checks on young people who are often black or of Arab descent and live in poor housing.
Notification of notification is the mandatory first step in a two-step prosecution process. The law gives the French authorities four months to discuss the satisfaction of their requests with NGOs. If the parties behind the lawsuit are not satisfied after that date, the case will go to court, according to one of the lawyers, Slim Ben Achour.
This is the first class action lawsuit for discrimination based on color or alleged ethnic origins in France. NGOs use a little-used 2016 French law that allows associations to make such a legal decision.
“This is revolutionary, because we will speak on behalf of hundreds of thousands, if not a million people. Ben Achour told the Associated Press news agency in a telephone interview. The NGOs are pursuing the class action lawsuit on behalf of racial minorities who are mostly second or third generation French citizens.
“The band is brown and black,” Ben Achour said.
The four-month period for reaching a settlement could be extended if talks progress, but if not, the NGOs will go to court, he said.
The abuse of identity checks has served many in France as emblematic of an alleged racism wider within the police ranks, with critics claiming the faults had not been vetted or whitewashed by authorities .
Video of a recent incident posted online drew a response from President Emmanuel Macron, who called racial profiling “unbearable.” Police officials say officers themselves feel under attack when they show up at suburban housing projects. During a series of confrontational incidents, officers were trapped and thrown at each other with fireworks and other objects.
NGOs seek reforms rather than monetary damages, especially changes in the law governing identity checks. Organizations argue that the law is too broad and allows no police accountability because the actions of the officers involved cannot be traced, while those arrested are humiliated and sometimes angry.
Among other demands, the organizations want to end the long-standing practice of assessing police performance based on the number of tickets issued or arrests made, arguing that benchmarks may encourage baseless identity checks.
‘Second class citizens’
The trial features around fifty witnesses, both police officers and people subject to abusive controls, whose accounts are extracted in letters of formal notice. NGOs cite an anonymous person who has spoken of undergoing multiple police checks every day for years.
A policeman stationed in a difficult Parisian suburb unrelated to the case told the AP he was often subjected to identity checks while wearing civilian clothes.
“When I’m not in uniform I’m a person of color,” said the officer, who requested to remain anonymous under police rules and due to the sensitive nature of the matter. The police need a legal basis for their actions, “but 80% of the time they check (based on) the head” – that is, what a person looks like.
Omer Mas Capitolin, the head of the Community House for Supportive Development, a grassroots NGO involved in the legal action, called the French police a “mechanical reflex” to arrest people of color, a practice which he said , is harmful to the person being checked. and ultimately to the relationship between the officers and members of the public they are supposed to protect.
“When you’re still in control, it lowers your self-esteem,” and you become a “second-class citizen,” said Mas Capitolin. The “victims are afraid to file a complaint in this country even if they know that what has happened is not normal,” he said, because they fear the fallout from the neighborhood police.
He credited the case of George Floyd, the black American who died last year in Minneapolis after a white policeman pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck, raising awareness and becoming a catalyst for change in France.
However, the NGOs clarify that they do not individually accuse the police of being racist because “they are operating within a system that has allowed these practices to spread and take hold,” the groups said in a joint document. .
“It’s so much in the culture. They never think there is a problem, ”said Ben Achour, the lawyer.