The overall experience of French people of colour, particularly young adults, is becoming increasingly precarious in their interactions with the police.
The French police have been no stranger to controversy in the last decade or so, with high-profile police killings as well as brutality leaving a dark stain on the country’s fabric. The use of disproportionate force by French forces is becoming increasingly worrisome and frequently makes international news.
It has been the topic of debate both in French households and in the country’s national policy, with the recent presidential candidates focusing on the matter as a central talking point, regardless of their stance vis-à-vis what is a clearly polarising issue. And now, with Macron winning re-election, people are looking to him, once again, for reform.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a comment piece on July 5 titled, “A Human Rights Agenda for France,” containing 14 insightful recommendations that shed light on some pressing social issues the country should address. Among those pertinent to this discussion was the granting of inordinate leeway to police in the name of ‘security'. It essentially, inadvertently, groups the human rights abuses conducted by French authorities in their own country and in places where France has ongoing military/overseas operations.
The recommendations — which include headings such as, ‘Ensure the right to equal treatment by the police,’ ‘Respect the rights of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers,’ and ‘Repatriate French citizens, including children and their mothers arbitrarily detained in northeast Syria,’ — highlight that race is definitely still a systemic issue in France.
HRW's recommendations point to forms of racial bias or discrimination against specifically black and brown citizens of France, and not only towards refugees and new immigrants (though this is certainly found in abundance). This bias becomes apparent very quickly when following the actual legal proceedings against police for disproportionate or unwarranted use of force and the ethnicities of casualties the police create.
This decades-long battle against disproportionate use of force opposes not only the targeting of people of colour but also the police’s approach to ‘controlling’ group gatherings or protests. These events ultimately coalesced into social retaliation from the general population through protests against unchecked powers, with a significant one taking place this past March, to the first class-action lawsuit against the French police for racial profiling. In 2021, six NGOs pushed this movement forward in a historical first attempt at holding police accountable for their wanton discrimination, issuing recommendations for reform, including, “a change in the penal code to demand accountability in stops, and an end to the longstanding practice of gauging police performance by the number of tickets issued or arrests made, benchmarks that encourage baseless identity checks.”
Disproportionate racial discrimination by authorities can be verified through two key avenues presented in the HRW document: first, the infamous ID checks, and second, ‘Vigipirate,’ the national emergency plan that is arguably even more infamous.
Vigipirate: A permanent state of emergency law?
Plan Vigipirate (an acronym for "surveillance and protection of facilities against the risk of terrorist bombing attacks") is France’s national security alert system, created in the late 1970s. It has been used several times throughout recent history, but gained international attention following the 2015 terror attacks across France. The different levels of the alert system have various stipulations, but all move towards a general increase of security measures across the board. These measures most notably include the sometimes heavy presence of gendarmerie and military forces at transportation hubs (airports, train and bus stations, etc.).
The security plan was on high alert until 2017 and was raised once again at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. Among some of its functions, Plan Vigipirate extends the powers of the executive branch of the government, which often imposes temporary bans on civil freedoms. Notable issues have been the closure of places of worship, surveillance, and the use of heavy force to control protests.
While arguably a necessary measure for national security, from this particular perspective, this plan of an emergency certainly adds to the overall powers granted to policing and governmental bodies that they would not normally have.
More often than not these powers will attempt to retain control indefinitely; HRW highlights, “For example, French authorities used powers initially introduced under a state of emergency to dissolve a leading anti-discrimination organization, alleging among other things that its descriptions of certain counterterrorism measures as Islamophobic incited hatred.”
This group was widely praised for their anti-Muslim efforts in the country and frequently defended Muslims facing discrimination individually and socially. Under the emergency law, now pushed into the permanent legal code, the government dissolved the organization over disproved claims of supporting ‘Radicalism.’
Some crucial recommendations put forward include, “Ensure that emergency measures are subject to robust and regular scrutiny and judicial oversight and that they do not become permanent measures by being integrated into regular laws for use after the state of emergency.”
They also suggest reviewing "crowd control policies to ensure effective safeguards against excessive use of force during protests and unjustified interference with the right to protest". Investigating alleged abuses and holding "officers to account for excessive use of force" was part of the HRW's advice.
ID checks: stop and fine?
In France, certain policing forces — namely the gendarmerie forces, but also in some cases, the municipal police — have the authority to stop any individual, without probable cause, and perform an identification check. These checks are problematic not simply because the practice contributes to the erosion of public faith in the police, namely due to arbitrary charges and fines that are routinely dispersed, but also because these ID checks allegedly overwhelmingly target people of colour.
Furthermore, there is, bizarrely, no record of police interaction with individuals during these ID checks, meaning there is no record of how many times a year an individual can be stopped, and therefore, no way of holding the individual officers and institutions accountable for contributing to a clear phenomenon of racial profiling.
A recent journal article by French academics, Fabien Jobard and Jacques de Maillard, conducted a hefty literature review on ID checks whereby the authors reviewed a selection of surveys that included tens and thousands of French participants. In their overall analysis, they discovered that young men — specifically young men of Arab or African ethnicities — were stopped at a significantly higher rate. The authors highlight, citing a 2017 study, “Males were 1.5 times more likely to be searched than females, for instance. The risk of being searched redoubles for males who are perceived as Arab or North-African, contrasted to all other males. A full 80 per cent of young males perceived as Black or Arab reported having been searched at least once, versus vs 28 per cent of young males not in that category.”
Racial profiling has been an issue for years, but collecting data to expose the discrimination has been problematic, particularly as there are no records of these encounters. These checks are repeated during times of high alert, including terror attacks that affect all citizens, as well as during the recent health crisis caused by Covid-19. One report cites that the same disadvantaged areas that were frequently targeted and heavily policed were also those that were the most heavily fined for the breaching of France’s coronavirus lockdown rules.
It is also important to note that these police stops very often extend past the identification process itself, the academics highlight that. “A police stop may involve only a simple ID check, but also can escalate into a full-blown frisk or search. So-called “safety measures” may occasionally be taken, such as requesting individuals to lean against a wall, placing their feet apart, with their back turned to the police and others who may be present.”
The overall experience of French people of colour, particularly young adults, is becoming increasingly precarious in their interactions with the police. However, the state has the potential to set a social precedent through simple but effective reform, attempting to put an end to the systemic racism that is found in a number of French institutions today.
If authoritative forces within the country are in the open habit of discrimination based on race, it not only enables racists with harmful ideologies, but it creates a very foul environment for all parties included – particularly in a state that’s foundational values are built on the notion of equality.
The report ends with a set of well-considered recommendations that elaborate on concrete ways to reform this issue from both social and legislative angles. But a straightforward solution to this widespread problem, and my personal conclusion, “End discriminatory policing and targeting of Black and Arab youth.”
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