PARIS (AP) – In a first for France, six non-governmental organizations launched a class action lawsuit against the French government on Wednesday for alleged systematic discrimination by police officers performing identity checks.
The organizations, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, claim that French police use racial profiles targeting black people and people of Arab origin when checking identity cards.
They served Prime Minister Jean Castex and the French Interior and Justice Ministers with a formal legal notice of calls for concrete action and deep law enforcement reforms to ensure racial profiling does not decide who gets stopped by the police.
The lead attorney in the case, Antoine Lyon-Caen, said that the legal action is not aimed at individual police officers, but “the system itself, which creates a discriminatory practice through its rules, habits and culture”.
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“As the deficiencies of the state concern a systemic practice, the response, the reactions, the corrective measures and the actions must be systemic,” said Lyon-Caen at a press conference at which NGOs took action. These include the Open Society Justice Initiative and three French grassroots groups.
The problem of racial profiling by French police has been worsening for years, including, but not limited to, the practice of officials performing identity checks on young people, often black or Arab, living on impoverished housing projects.
Service is the mandatory first step in a two-stage legal process. The law gives the French authorities four months to talk to NGOs about how to meet the requirements. If the parties behind the lawsuit are not satisfied, the case will be brought to trial, according to one of the lawyers, Slim Ben Achour.
It is the first class action lawsuit for discrimination based on skin color or suspected ethnic origin in France. The NGOs apply a little-used French law from 2016 that allows associations to take such a legal step.
“It’s revolutionary because we’re going to speak to hundreds of thousands, even a million people.” Ben Achour told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. The NGOs are pursuing the class action lawsuit on behalf of ethnic minorities who are mostly second and third generation French citizens.
“The group is brown and black,” said Ben Achour.
The four-month deadline for reaching an agreement could be extended as talks progress, he said.
The misuse of identity checks has served as a symbol for many in France of a more general alleged racism within the police force. Critics claim that the wrongdoing has not been investigated or whitewashed by the authorities.
The video of a recent online incident was replied to by President Emmanuel Macron, who described racial profiling as “unbearable”. Police officers say officers themselves feel assaulted when they show up on suburban housing projects. During a spate of confrontation incidents, officers were caught and fired with fireworks and other objects.
The NGOs are looking for reforms rather than monetary damage, particularly changes to the identity verification law. They argue that the law is too broad and does not allow police accountability as the actions of the officers involved cannot be traced, while the stopped people remain humiliated and sometimes angry.
Among other things, the organizations are calling for an end to the longstanding practice of measuring police performance by the number of tickets issued or arrests, arguing that the benchmarks can lead to baseless identity checks.
The lawsuit includes around 50 witnesses, both police officers and people who have been tampered with and whose accounts are listed in the 145-page notice letters. The NGOs quote an unnamed person who spoke of being subjected to several police checks every day for years.
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A police officer in a troubled suburb of Paris unrelated to the case told the AP that he underwent frequent ID checks in plain clothes.
“If I am not wearing a uniform, I am a colored person,” said the officer, who asked to remain anonymous in accordance with police rules and due to the sensitivity of the issue. The police need a legal basis for their actions, “but 80% of the time they check (based on) the heads” – which means what a person looks like.
Omer Mas Capitolin, the head of the Community House for Supportive Development, a grassroots NGO involved in legal action, called it a “mechanical reflex” for French police to stop non-whites, a practice he believes is being reviewed Person harms and ultimately to the relationships between officials and the members of the public they are designed to protect.
“Keeping you screened will decrease your self-esteem,” and you will become a “second-class citizen,” said Mas Capitolin. The “victims are afraid to lodge complaints in this country even if they know what happened is abnormal,” he said, because they fear being affected by the neighborhood police.
He attributed the case of George Floyd, the black American who died in Minneapolis last year after a white policeman pressed his knee to Floyd’s neck to lift his conscience and become a catalyst for change in France.
“These are practices that affect society as a whole,” said Issa Coulibaly, the head of Pazapas-Belleville, another organization involved in the case. Like a downward spiral, profiling damages the youth’s “sense of belonging” to the life of the nation and “reinforces the prejudices of others against this population”.
NGOs made it clear that they did not accuse individual police officers of being racist.
“There is so much in the culture. They never believe there is a problem, ”said lawyer Ben Achour.