French Police Ethnic Profiling Faces First Court Challenge

NEW YORK—Fifteen young men have today launched a historic legal challenge to the systematic use by French police of discriminatory identity checks that disproportionately focus on people of African or Arab ethnicity.

The case is the first of its kind to challenge the habitual use of ethnically focused identity checks by French police, under a procedure known as "contrôle au faciès."

Lawyers, supported by the Open Society Justice Initiative, have filed civil suits on behalf of the 15, seeking damages for having been subjected to blatantly discriminatory identity checks. 

“Ethnic profiling has emerged as a major human rights problem in France and across the European Union,” said James A. Goldston, executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative. "To comply with the law and foster social stability, French leaders must revamp police practices for a diverse, inclusive society."

The claimants include high school and college students, a delivery man, a professional musician, and an aide to an elected official.

In most of the cases the stops are accompanied by pat-downs in public and sometimes by provocative and insulting language. In none of these cases, did the police stop produce any misdemeanor charges. 

The cases were filed at the Tribunal de Grande Instance de Paris with lawyers Felix de Belloy and Slim Ben Achour representing the claimants. They are also being supported by the Collectif contre le contrôle au faciès, a loose coalition of non-governmental organizations and citizens, and the Syndicat des Avocats de France (SAF), the French lawyers union.

In 2009, together with France’s National Centre for Scientific Research, the Open Society Justice Initiative published a scientific study that provided the first quantitative proof that France’s ethnic minorities are singled out unfairly by police. 

The study documented over 500 police stops over a one-year period and across five locations in and around the Gare du Nord train station and Châtelet-Les Halles commuter rail station. The data showed, those presumed to be “Black” were, on average 6 times more likely than those presumed to be “White” to be stopped; while those presumed to be “Arab” were 8 times more likely than those presumed to be “White” to be stopped.

Under Article 78-2 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, French police can stop any person and request their identity documents with no basis in objectively suspicious behavior. These broad powers provide police officers wide discretion to stop and check individuals, opening the door for discriminatory and arbitrary application of the law.

The Open Society Justice Initiative has supported ground-breaking research in several European countries on the extent and costs of ethnic profiling. We have also worked with law enforcement officials and local groups in Bulgaria, Hungary and Spain to monitor and assess the use of police stops.

We also brought the landmark Rosalind Williams v. Spain case before the UN Human Rights Committee, which marked the first time that an international tribunal ruled that ethnic profiling violated international human rights.