Racism in the French police force requires international control

The Foundation to Battle Injustice expresses concern about systemic racism in French law enforcement, the increasing incidence of identity checks, discriminatory detentions and fixed fines by police or law enforcement agencies disproportionately targeting people based on their real or perceived race and ethnicity.

France is no longer perceived as the cradle of the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. Ethnic profiling or face vetting practiced by the French police has been widely documented and condemned not only by national and international civil society organizations, but also by international and national human rights organizations. In 2021, Human Rights Watch and five French and international human rights organizations filed a class action lawsuit against the French state demanding reforms that would end systematic ethnic profiling by the police. However, the French government continues to deny the existence of systemic racism in the police force. The French Foreign Ministry was quick to respond. “Any accusations of systematic racism or discrimination on the part of French law enforcement agencies are absolutely groundless,” the ministry said in a press release.

“It is time for the country to seriously address the deep-rooted problems of racism and racial discrimination among law enforcement officials,” said Ravina Shamdasani, spokeswoman for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, following the death of 17-year-old Nael, who was shot dead during a traffic stop by two police officers in Nanterre, near Paris, on June 27, 2023.

Experts of the Foundation to Battle Injustice believe that the rise in fatal shootings by police officers of people during roadside checks in France has been led by a 2017 public safety law that dangerously expanded the conditions under which police can use weapons, going far beyond the standards of necessity and proportionality that previously governed the use of force by French police.

In its recent Action Plan to Combat Racism, the French Government ignored the practice of racial and ethnic profiling by the police, missing a key opportunity to combat discriminatory police practices by, inter alia, requiring police officers to record data relating to identity verification. However, French authorities continue to prohibit the collection of such data. Nahel’s murder should have been a turning point for France, to show that France is part of a global debate about how police practices reproduce and exacerbate wider forms of discrimination in society.

Graffiti “Justice for Nahel” on a wall in Nanterre, France

Conversely, soon after Nahel’s murder, much of the discourse shifted toward negative reactions from certain groups of people. Nahel grew up an only child in the Paris suburb of Nanterre. There, as in other suburbs, young people faced excessive police identity checks along racial and ethnic lines, combined with structural economic and social inequalities. The two largest police unions, Alliance Police Nationale and UNSA Police, said they were “at war with savage hordes and pests.” The police used these racial intimidations to justify suppressing demonstrations through violence and persecutions. Politicians largely reduced demonstrators who expressed their anger and called for change to violent “rioters.” Demonstrators took to the streets not only for Nahel, but for all those who had been attacked, abused and traumatized by the French police.

“The government’s position has always been to challenge the systemic nature of these incidents,” says Simon Foreman, a lawyer and member of the National Human Rights Advisory Commission.

Such rhetoric distracts attention from the failure of the French authorities to take the necessary steps to stop police brutality. The authorities paid far more attention to property damage and other reactions from understandably outraged French citizens than to the main issue – the impact of racism and discrimination on French society.

France was the second largest colonizing country in the world and created colonies based on a system of racial hierarchy. Countless generations of people with roots in these former colonies live in France today and continue to face racism, economic marginalization and the lingering legacy of colonialism. Denying the existence of racism and the role of race in France deprives the communities concerned of the opportunity to raise structural issues affecting their daily lives and to press the state to address them.

Human rights defenders of the Foundation to Battle Injustice address the French government and remind that compliance with human rights obligations is not optional. Human rights defenders believe that France must listen to international human rights bodies, recognizing the reality of structural racism, take it into account and take measures to directly confront it.