By Guest Writer Tatiana Gnuva

Excessive Use of Police Force to Shut Down Protests

France, a country that prides itself on being the home of “human rights” and whose very motto is “liberté, égalité, fraternité,” (“Freedom, equality, fraternity”)  is responsible for a number of human rights violations related to police brutality and overreach. In fact, the UN Human Rights Council condemned France on May 1st for police brutality, ethnic profiling, and excessive use of force in large-scale police operations to regulate protests. The Council strongly recommended that the state intensify its efforts to combat anti-Muslim hate and reduce the systematic racism that pervades French police activities. 

Several NGOs, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have identified countless instances of police brutality that have only increased in frequency. During the “Gilets Jaunes” demonstrations of 2019, the police used excessive force to harm peaceful protestors and bystanders—including journalists—by violently shutting down protests with tear gas and disproportional physical force. These actions are problematic and raise concern as they violate French citizens’ freedom of expression and assembly. The police ironically shut down demonstrations that protested police violence with police violence, employing tear gas, utilizing unnecessary force in an attempt to ban protests outright using the pretext of the pandemic. 

Institutional Racism in the French Police

Police overreach and excessive use of violence are not limited to shutting down protests: minorities are often the target of their discriminatory practices and, at times, deadly interventions. Lamine Dieng (2007), Hakim Ajimi (2008), Amadou Koume (2015), and Adama Traore (2016) are just a few of the French citizens who died under suspicious circumstances while in police custody. In November 2020, a music producer named Michel Zecler was arbitrarily stopped by the police, violently assaulted, called racial slurs, and attacked with tear gas. A couple of months earlier, an Egyptian man was also randomly stopped by the police and maligned with racial slurs. 

A Human Rights Watch report published June 18th, 2020 details the prevalence of discriminatory practices in impoverished neighborhoods: French police stops are a reality in many French “banlieues” or suburban ghettos. French youth, some as young as ten, are frequently stopped by police and brutally searched. These unjustified and traumatic practices violate international law and international human rights standards. The European Court of Human Rights condemns indirect discrimination of this kind. These intrusive and abusive practices jeopardize the right to privacy protected by international human rights law as indicated in the European Convention on Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Human Rights Watch identified most of these instances of police brutality as stemming from “biased policing, including racial or ethnic profiling.” Indeed, the French police—who are supposed to keep vulnerable communities safe from such outrageous racist attacks—are characterized by institutional racism. Studies have shown that many French police officers consistently vote for far-right politicians that openly encourage xenophobia. This includes Marine Lepen, former leader of Le Rassemblement National, the most popular far-right party in France. Eighty-one percent of police officers voted for LePen during the last election, and thirty-one percent of police officers supported the extreme-right candidate Eric Zemmour in the first round of voting.

French Colorblindness, an Obstacle to Proving Discrimination

France refuses to confront the systemic racism present in most of its institutions. This refusal to face the past is manifested by Article 1 of the French Constitution, which outlaws any distinctions based on ethnicity, religion, or gender: France “assure l’égalité devant la loi de tous les citoyens sans distinction d’origine, de race ou de religion.” (“France shall ensure the equality of all citizens before the law, without distinction of origin, race or religion.”). This provision, well-intentioned as it may be, makes it incredibly difficult to prove the police’s discriminatory practices and pass legislation targeting this discrimination, as there is very little available statistical data to verify claims. The Assemblée Nationale even voted to remove the word “race” from the French Constitution in July 2018, effectively instituting a colorblind approach that denies the existence of discrimination and racism. 

Additionally, a 1978 French law made it explicitly illegal to ask for one’s ethnicity, race, or religion in national surveys, making it especially hard to force the government into recognizing that the French police’s discriminatory and biased policing practices necessitate change. The 1978 law was enacted based on  the information from such surveys being used to target the French Jewish population during the Second World War. It was originally intended to limit discrimination, yet today seems to have the opposite effect and enables discrimination to go unnoticed. These laws aimed at creating and reinforcing an image of France as “une et indivisible” (“one and undivided”) deny the country’s multiculturalism and hinder any attempts to reduce the racism present in most aspects of French society and French institutions. 

Any effort to implement strategic litigation aiming at reducing French police’s discriminatory practices, including racially biased stops and excessive use of force, has been countered in the past by police leadership. The French interior minister outright denied accusations of racism aimed at the French police as recently as June 8th, 2020. A recent international study found that France has the highest discrimination rate among developed countries. For example, White people  receive 65% to 100% more callbacks to job interviews in France than nonwhite minorities. These legal bans obstruct human rights groups’ abilities to reveal discrimination and human rights abuses. A June 2020 Human Rights Watch report demonstrated that police stops were often motivated by racial and ethnic profiling, and the police resorted to violence in some instances. It is, however, difficult to effectively prove that there is a trend of discrimination as there is no information relating to ethnicity or race in arrest reports. 

Other Obstacles to Confronting the French Police’s Discriminatory Practices

French police are not held accountable as the entire judicial system is designed to protect police officers from complaints. Investigations into problematic police behavior are doomed to fail from the get-go and are quickly dropped. Prosecutors rely on police support and, to ensure this continued support, are more likely to be lenient in cases involving police brutality. In a striking example of police brutality, in November 2017, Abdoulaye Sakho pressed charges after allegedly being burned by police officers conducting an identity check. All the evidence was present, yet the judge ruling on the case still managed to order a weaker sentence than was called for, ultimately charging the officers with “involuntary use of violence” or “non-assistance to a person in danger.” Abdoulaye Sakho’s case demonstrates a flawed judiciary process rigged in the French police’s favor that contributes to the culture of impunity that allows systematic, institutionalized racism to thrive. This lenient attitude towards police overreach can be extended to the French government as a whole. France has an unusually large number of protests; the French are famous for their perpetual “grèves” or strikes and “manifestations.” As such, President Emmanuel Macron and the French government rely heavily on the police’s support to keep demonstrations such as the Gilets Jaunes protests under control and cannot risk losing that backing by pushing for harsh, albeit necessary restrictions on the French police.

Strategies to Restore the Trust between the Police and Communities

Mr. Blanchard, an expert on French police activities, summarized the police mentality, saying: “In the long history of the French police, the police are in service to the state, not the citizen.” The police’s systematic use of excessive force and recurrent discriminatory practices has resulted in a loss of trust between the police and the community. The individuals suffering the most at the hands of the French police are primarily members of its marginalized communities, mainly Arab minorities. Community relations with French police have been weakened by years of tolerated institutionally racist police practices and need to be improved for any real change to occur. Effectively confronting underlying and interiorized racial biases held by the police and altering the hostile police relationship with civilians would go a long way toward decreasing instances of police outreach. This method of changing police culture through training and relearning is also more likely to be accepted by French police unions and the national police institution as it is formulated as a progressive solution that, if it succeeded, would constitute a win for all parties involved.

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