Ethnic Profiling in France

The Open Society Justice Initiative recently launched a series of reports that provide important information concerning the ethnic profiling in Europe. According to the general report on the ethnic profiling in the European Union, this practice is commonly and widely employed by many police officials across Europe, despite the fact that in most of these countries discrimination on the basis of race or colour is condemned, dismissed and marked as illegal. Almost every country in Europe uses ethnic profiling as a measure of deciding whom to stop, search and arrest, thereby violating the legally enforced principle of non-discrimination.

It is crucial to note that in most instances the practice of ethnic profiling is associated with the ‘war on drugs’. With the excuse of fighting the supposed violence and harm caused by drug abuse, the police officers stop and search people belonging to ethnic minorities to check if they carry drugs. The real purpose is to humiliate and mistreat those people. Drugs are often the pretext for a stop and search.

In addition to the Open Society Foundation’s important findings, the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance country reports indicate that in several instances, the conduct of the law enforcement officials is discriminatory and racist, targeting possible suspects because of their looks and not because of their –possibly suspect- actions. And what happens is that in most cases the ethnic minorities are the usual suspects.

France is one of those countries that widely use ethnic profiling as a tactic of stop, search and arrest. Before the launch of the report titled ‘Profiling Minorities: A Study of Stop-and-Search Practices in Paris’ by the Open Society Justice Initiative there was no quantitative evidence of the racial profiling in France. Although important qualitative research was done before, showing that ethnic or religious characteristics were used as a way of singling out people for identity checks and arrests, there was no systematic, empirical study on the issue. ‘Profiling Minorities’ offers valuable insight in the issue and establishes the fact that ethnic profiling in France is a true, existing problem and that it has to be faced as such.

The study was conducted in five locations in Paris, mostly in international transit points, where thousands of people from diverse backgrounds circulate every day and where the majority of the police stops occur. The researchers, through the use of the statistical methodology of observational benchmarking and monitoring, gathered information on police stops and arrests, carried out by National Police and Customs officers, including information on the ethnicity, age, gender, clothing, and bags carried by the persons who were stopped. The results of the survey are remarkable:

•    Overall, between those observed transiting through the five observation locations in Paris, 57,9 per cent were White, 23 per cent were Black, 11,3 per cent Arabs, 4,3 Asian and 3,1 Indo-Pakistani.
•    However, across those five observation sites, Blacks were overall six times and Arabs 7,6 times more likely than Whites to be stopped by the police. Of the 524 individuals who were stopped, 141 were classified as White, 201 as Black, 102 as Arab, 36 as Indo-Pakistani, 21 as Asian and 23 as ‘other ethnic group’. Additional interviews with those who were stopped and searched revealed that Blacks and Arabs were the two ethnic groups that regularly faced far more police stops than Whites.
•    Thirty-one per cent of Black respondents reported being stopped between two and four times per month, and 18 per cent reported being stopped more than five times per month.
•    The statistics showed  that when compared to Whites, Blacks were steadily stopped at higher rates at all of the locations observed. More specifically, in one of the stations observed, Blacks were 11 times more likely to be stopped than Whites.
•    The data highlighted that Arabs were ethnically profiled in a high degree as well: at one of the five stations observed, Arabs were 13 times more likely than Whites to be stopped and at another station 15 times as likely as Whites to be stopped.
•    Overall, between White and non-White persons, non-Whites were 3,5 times more likely to be stopped than Whites.
•    There was a significant difference in treatment between different ethnic groups after the procedure of identity checks: Blacks and Arabs were respectively four and three times more likely than Whites to be frisked, and three to two times more likely to be detained by the police than were Whites.
•    It was shown that the police did not provide the reason for the stops and identity checks for more than 60% of the time.

All these data clearly show that ethnic minorities –particularly Blacks and Arabs- very often happen to be the target of the police officials in Paris.

The question now is, why, in a country known for its democratic aspirations, for defending the equal citizenship and the total equality before the law, does the phenomenon of racial profiling exist?

The Open Society Justice Initiative has an answer: the French government  generally operates a very strict policy on immigration issues, prevention of terrorism and on fighting petty infractions. These strategies can many times be at odds with the respect and application of the principle of non-discrimination.

It is easy, for example, for many police officers to use those policy lines as an excuse for stopping and arresting people of colour that might be completely innocent, simply on the grounds of controlling illegal immigration. As there is no legal provision with respect to tracking down stops and arrests and measuring the effectiveness of those stops, the ground is open to misinterpretation of the existing law and to different kinds of abuses.

When the law is misused and misinterpreted, or when it is deliberately designed as an excuse for targeting specific groups –because one can argue that this can be the case for the strict counterterrorism or minor infractions policies in France-, then what we are faced with is a clear violation of the European human rights norms established under the European Convention on Human Rights and by the European Union. And more importantly, it is a violation of the principle of dignity and worth of the person, a principle that took centuries and countless fights and human sacrifices to be defended and legally established. 

Ethnic profiling in France was and is a real problem that has to be defined and treated as such by the law.Fortunately, some steps have been made to address the issue: a press release of the Open Society Justice Initiative states that in June of 2011 a very important constitutional challenge to the widespread use of ethnic profiling by French police took a major step forward, as judges from across the country agreed to refer cases heard before local courts to the highest court in France’s judicial system. This legal effort, launched by a number of French lawyers and supported by the Open Society Justice Initiative, marks the first time French policing  discriminatory behaviour  towards Black and Arab communities has been attacked on constitutional grounds and it is a significant progress in  France’s criminal justice system.

Ethnic profiling is direct discrimination and an offense of the integrity of the person, so it is important to remember that this practice should be listed among the first that should be attacked by the governmental policy tactics. Instead of tackling minor infractions and controlling immigration so strictly, the French law should first of all ensure that the dignity and integrity of each citizen and human being is secured.