Report: France

Black and Arab group sues French state over police racial profiling

AFP/Thierry Saliou/Files

A judge in France is considering the first ever case in which the French state is accused of racial discrimination for controversial identity checks conducted by the police.

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Thirteen men, aged 18 to 35, all black or of Arab origin, appeared in court on Wednesday, claiming they have been the targets of racially motivated stop-and-frisk identity checks.

Outside the courtroom, Mounir, 22, one of the plaintifs, recalled the first time he was stopped by the police, two years ago, as he was coming out of a metro station in the northern city of Lille, where he lives.

"I was going to college and at the metro exit there were three police officers. One said: 'Hey you, come here. ID check'. There were about 10 of us, and I was the only one called over," he says, adding that he was the only non-white person in the group.

The police officers asked to see his papers, and he gave them his student ID. They asked if he had drugs or weapons on him, and then let him go.

It was a humiliating experience.

"This was in the middle of the metro station, with people everywhere," he explains. "When you see someone surrounded by the police, you think he's a criminal, that he did something wrong."

He was so upset by the experience that he decided to press charges. He contacted the Collective against racial profiling (Collectif Contre Le Contrôle Au Faciès), which has been asking people to come forward.

They helped him and 12 others build a case against the Interior ministry for what they say are discriminatory practices by the police.

"We want this case to set a precedent," says Nassim Lachelache, a spokesperson for the collective. He says the case is important so others will feel they can press charges when they feel they have been unjustly stopped and searched.

He personally gets stopped regularly, and the police are often aggressive.

"It happened three times in one day," he says, each time by a different police officer. He told them he had already been checked but they wanted to see his papers anyway. He says he had no choice:

"If you don't cooperate, they put you against the wall, and are immediately aggressive."

The current Socialist government had been considering putting in place a system that would provide anyone stopped for an ID check with a receipt, or a stop form, which would allow a monitoring committee to track those who get checked most often, and by whom.

But the plan was eventually dropped.

"For decades there has been denial of the problem. Only recently has there been recognition by the President, but the strong measures that are necessary are still not being taken," says Lana Hollo, with the Open Society Justice Initiative, which hired the lawyers for the plaintifs in this case.

She says if the government had followed through with the stop forms, this case would have probably been unecessary.

"If the government would take serious measures: would introduce stop forms, so that checks could be traced; would introduce more preventative policing, dialogue; would take the range of measures that are necessary, we wouldn't be in court."

A study conducted by the Justice Initiative, with the National Center for Scientific Research, on racial profiling in Paris, showed that minorities are much more likely to be stopped by police than white people: black people are stopped six times more often, North Africans are stopped eight times more often.

"We're talking about a widespread systematic case of racial profiling that affects millions of individuals per year," says Hallo. "They are checked, frisked, searched, just for what they look like."

This was Bocar Nian's experience.

"I am black. French, of Senegalese origin," he says. "The color of my skin is visible. I cannot hide it and I don't want to hide it. And I should not be stopped for that."

Another of the 13 plaintifs, the 34-year-old, says he was the target of a racially-motivated stop and frisk two years ago.

"I was leaving my parents' house with my two young sisters, and I was taken by the arm and was told 'identity check'. They threatened me with a Taser. They kept me for 30 minutes. Then they returned my ID and told me that was it. That's unacceptable."

Nian says he was given no information on why he was stopped - even when he went to the police afterwards to file a complaint. The experience motivated him to become involved with the Collective, with the aim of putting a stop to this kind of practice.

"ID checks are important, but you can't stop people based on the color of their skin or what they're wearing. It's not acceptable in France, which calls itself the country of human rights."

The judge is due to make a decision in the case at the start of October.

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