French Public Sees Ethnic Profiling in Police Stops

PARIS—A new opinion survey released today highlights public discontent with discriminatory police identity checks in France, the Open Society Justice Initiative said. The survey was carried out on behalf of Graines de France, a Paris-based research organization focused on poor neighborhoods, together with Human Rights Watch and the Open Society Justice Initiative.

This survey demonstrates the urgent need and strong public support for robust measures to address discriminatory identity check practices, the organizations said. The government should carry out its 2012 campaign promise for such reforms.

Almost two thirds (63 percent) of those interviewed—and 83 percent of those of North African descent—believe that identity checks by French police and gendarmerie involve ethnic profiling.

The survey also confirmed the significant negative impact of ethnic profiling on trust in police. Consistent with other studies, 78 percent of respondents said they trust the police and gendarmerie. But the percentage dropped to 43 percent among those who had experienced a discriminatory identity check in the previous year.  

Ten percent of respondents said they had been stopped by police at least once in the previous 12 months, with an average of 2.65 stops per year. However, this average rose to 4.76 for people of migrant origin, and up to 8.18 for those of North African descent.

Those who believed they were stopped on discriminatory grounds reported an average of 10.64 stops per year. These rates are significantly higher than those found in a 2010 survey by the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency in 10 EU countries.

Overall, 37.3 percent of the total number of stops reported involved those of North African descent, although they make up only 7 percent of the population.

Twelve percent of those who had been stopped believed discrimination had been involved.  This percentage increased to 41 percent of respondents of North African descent, and 30 percent of those under 25.

As interior minister earlier in the Hollande administration, Prime Minister Manuel Valls had limited pat-downs, introduced identification numbers on police uniforms, and ordered police to use the polite form of address. But 67 percent of those surveyed said they believed it is important that measures are taken to address this problem. Only 40 percent believe concrete measures have been taken to date and, of these respondents, 57 percent believe these measures are insufficient.

The survey also revealed differences in treatment by law enforcement during identity checks between French without immigrant origins and those of North African descent:

  • People of North African descent were five times as likely as those without immigrant origins to have undergone pat-downs.
  • Those of North African descent were five times as likely to have had officers search their personal belongings during these stops.  
  • Three percent of those stopped said the police used physical force, but 12 percent of those of North African descent and 17 percent of those who felt they had been checked on discriminatory grounds reported the use of physical force.

Opinion Way conducted the survey in March based on a sample of 2,273 people. A further booster sample of 394 people who experienced stops over the last year was drawn from another representative sample of 5,283 people, for a total of 594 people who had experienced stops over the last year. The margin of error for a sample of 2,000 people is 1 to 2.2. The margin of error for a sample of 600 people is 1.8 to 4.1.

Given the lack of official statistics on identity checks in France, this survey helps to provide data on police use of identity check powers and the success of measures aimed at curbing discrimination, the groups said.

Since 2012, Graines de France, Human Rights Watch and Open Society Justice Initiative, in coalition with five other groups, have pressed French authorities to:

  • Reform article 78-2 of the code of criminal procedure, which provides the legal basis to conduct identity checks, to ensure that all identity checks are based on objective, individualized criteria;
  • Create an appropriate legal framework to prevent abusive or arbitrary conduct of patdowns;
  • Entitle anyone subject to an identity check to a  ‘stop form’ documenting the check;
  • Organize community-police dialogues on identity checks ;
  • Increase training for law enforcement officers;
  • Modify the criteria for promotion of law enforcement officers to take into account respect for the code of conduct and capacity to create links between law enforcement and the community.