Why are French authorities acknowledging racial profiling but doing nothing about it?
I’ve spent much of my adult life studying racism in France. As a Black woman and scholar, I’ve experienced the romanticized Paris of Black American expatriation, epitomized by Josephine Baker, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin. However, I’ve also experienced—and documented—racial profiling that continues to plague the City of Light.
Consequently, I was sickened but not surprised when, on October 11, France’s highest administrative court, the Council of State, dismissed the first class action lawsuit against the government for racial profiling and systemic discrimination by the police.
This decision was announced just four months after French police shot and killed under eerily similar circumstances 19-year-old Alhoussein Camara and 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk during traffic stops in June, igniting nationwide uprisings.Racial profiling sets in motion a deadly cycle of lethal force that targets people not for what they have done but for what they are racially presumed to be—i.e., criminals—in a “raceblind” France.
The French state brand-messages a powerful and seductive ideology of raceblindness whereby ignoring racialized differences supposedly leads to equality before the law, an “equality through invisibility.” But in daily life, France, like other European countries, is anything but raceblind, as the persistence of racial profiling and other forms of systemic discrimination by the police make all too clear.
Just ask boys and men racialized as Arab and Black from the suburbs or French outer-cities. They are 20 times more likely to be stopped and frisked by the police than any other group. This form of misrecognized police violence and lethal force in France only differs from the United States in terms of body count.
Police violence includes abusive stops and frisks, beatings, maiming, mental trauma, and what ended Camara and Merzouk’s lives: allegedly refusing to comply and police endangerment, according to the police. Video footage in Merzouk’s case refuted that version. The lack of such footage in Camara’s killing cast paralyzing doubt on law enforcers’ account.
The plaintiffs against the state in the class action suit, among them Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and several community-based NGOs, presented indisputable evidence of systemic racial profiling, demonstrating that the government failed to prevent a practice that, to be clear, violates French law.
In a remarkable display of candor, the court acknowledged the existence of widespread racial profiling by French police but fell short of calling it systemic. The crux of the court’s refusal hinged on a single issue: the reforms requested by the plaintiffs meant changing public policy, something that lawmakers must decide, it claimed. But leaving the fate of this issue in the hands of a law-and-order, far-right dominant Parliament ensures a kiss of death to any reform around racial profiling in France. The Council of State sidestepped the problem.
The evidence of racially motivated police wrongdoing, amassed from years of advocacy by the plaintiffs, was buttressed by previous condemnations of the French government by powerful authorities, including European courts and the highest French judicial court, the Court of Cassation. The latter found the government guilty of “gross misconduct” for repetitive and abusive identity checks—pretextually stopping a person to justify their identity—in 2016.
The French state and formidable police unions deny racial profiling, claiming that these identity checks are intended to prevent crime. But the evidence presented in the suit and reports by French authorities contradict their claims about a policing practice long linked to generating revenue and police productivity. Recent findings in December from the French high court of public finance show that an estimated 47 million identity checks occurred in 2021 alone, highlighting the centrality of this practice to French policing.Ultimately, the Council of State’s decision endangers vulnerable people who are repeatedly preyed upon by racist policing that teaches young people to run not to but from the French police. In my research on racial profiling in France, I have interviewed many with a front-row seat to these practices. One captures a common view: “We need the police, but we are in a country where we don’t like our police… we don’t trust them, and it’s not normal not to like the police because these people are supposed to protect us.” Instead, racist policing tramples civil and human rights that are irreconcilable with strident ultra-nationalist populists, zero-tolerant lawmakers, and racial profiling deniers increasingly voted into French and European Parliaments.
The shocking victory in the Netherlands in November of Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders, known as the Dutch Donald Trump, is but one example of the mainstreaming of extremist politics already thriving in the USA, Brazil, Argentina, and many European countries. Wilders was convicted for inciting racial discrimination, compared the Quran to Hitler’s Mein Kampf, called Dutch Moroccans “scum” and clamored for their ousting, and threatened to hold a contest for cartoons caricaturing the Prophet Muhammed that triggered in France the Charlie Hebdo terror attacks in 2015.
The French presidential candidate and far-right National Rally leader Marine Le Pen hailed Wilders’ win as “hope” that affirms this stripe of populism. Her party’s seismic gain of 89 of 577 seats in the 2022 elections—11 times more than it won in 2017—makes the once extreme-right National Front party, built by her father Jean-Marie Le Pen—himself convicted of racism and inciting racial hatred—the second largest opposition group and a potent force in French Parliament.
The Council of State, as the ultimate adjudicator of the government’s use of power, “has the authority to order the state to end these stigmatizing, humiliating, and degrading practices… under the 2016 antidiscrimination law.”However, the court failed to use this power to combat racist policing. Instead, the Council of State abdicated its responsibility, delivering a ruling that perpetuates police violence and sacrifices human rights and civil liberties for dubious returns.
Trica Keaton is in the Department of African and African American Studies and is affiliated with the Department of Sociology at Dartmouth College. She is author of #You Know You’re Black in France When…: The Fact of Everyday Antiblackness.