PARIS – Three young men have won a years-long legal battle against the French state after a court ruled they were subjected to discriminatory police checks in 2017 when they were in high school.
The judgment of the Paris Court of Appeal on Tuesday, which overturned a first instance decision, is not the first to condemn the French authorities for discriminatory practices. But the move came amid a growing and tense debate over brutality and racism in the French police force as activists, frustrated by the pace of change, file a growing number of court challenges to force police reforms.
Students – Ilyas Haddaji, Mamadou Camara and Zakaria Hadji Mmadi – were returning from a school trip to Brussels in March 2017 when police officers from Gare du Nord in Paris arrested them to verify their identity.
Aged 17 to 18 at the time, from families from Morocco, Mali and the Comoros, the three young men said they felt humiliated to be singled out and forced to open their bags in front of the 15 other students on the trip, as well as teaching staff and other passers-by in the busy train station. None of the others have had their identities verified.
The three students, who were at the time in their final year of high school in Épinay-sur-Seine, a suburb north of Paris, filed a complaint against the French state later in the year, accusing police of them. racially profiling. The Paris Court of Appeal has given its consent.
“The physical characteristics of the people arrested, in particular their origin, their age and their sex, were the real cause of the arrest”, wrote the judges of the Court of Appeal in their judgment, adding that the police control was therefore discriminatory and “constitutes a serious fault of the State.
Each student received 1,500 euros, or approximately $ 1,800, in damages.
Anti-discrimination activists and residents of the immigrant-densely populated urban suburbs of France have long complained about police identity checks. Police unions, which feel increasingly under siege, argue that checks are a necessary tool to stop crime. But activists say the stops are often motivated by racial prejudice.
Earlier this year, six non-governmental organizations used a rare collective lawsuit to warn the French state and force it to tackle “systemic discriminatory practices by the police”, accusing the government of neglecting its duty to end discriminatory police identity checks – a practice they called “widespread” and “deep-rooted”.
Slim Ben Achour, a lawyer who represented the three students and is also involved in the class action lawsuit, said the ruling showed that while police testimony traditionally prevailed in courts, judges were increasingly receptive to the version. complainant in discrimination cases, especially after a landmark 2016 decision by France’s highest court, the first to blame the state for racial profiling.
“I really believe there is a change,” said Ben Achour, who has worked on multiple discrimination cases, including one last year in which the state was convicted of “misconduct. serious “for violence and unjustified checks and arrests by 11 police officers targeting minors in the 12th arrondissement of Paris.
In its ruling this week, the appeals court criticized police authorities for reacting slowly to the 2017 incident at Gare du Nord, failing to get the footage from the security cameras in time and wrote a lackluster report almost two months later.
“Equality is at the top of the Republican edifice, and judges are very sensitive to this notion,” said Mr. Ben Achour.
A lower Paris court sided with the state in 2018, ruling that because most of the students’ classmates were also from ethnic minorities but had not been arrested for identity checks, the complainants could not claim that they had been distinguished on the basis of their skin color.
But the Paris court of appeal argued that it made more sense to compare the treatment of the three students with that of other disembarking passengers. who have not been arrested. The state failed to prove that the difference in treatment was justified, the court ruled.
President Emmanuel Macron acknowledged in an interview with online media Brut last year that “when you have a skin color that is not white, you are much more arrested, and even more so when you are a boy.” A 2017 report by the official human rights ombudsperson found that “young men perceived as black or Arab” were 20 times more likely to be subjected to identity checks than the rest of the population.
In an attempt to resolve the problem, Mr Macron’s government set up an online platform to consult citizens on issues of discrimination last February. Claire Hédon, the current human rights mediator, told franceinfo on Wednesday that 5,000 people had called the platform since then. This week’s judgment “shows that today we are making progress in the fight against discrimination,” Ms. Hédon said.