OPINION: Are French police racist? Yes, some of them

The chain reaction from the killing of George Floyd has been extraordinary - as much outside the United States as inside - writes John Lichfield.

OPINION: Are French police racist? Yes, some of them
A sign reading 'racism kills' at a demo in Paris. Photo: AFP

In Britain a slaver’s statue has toppled. In France a great taboo has fallen.

 French media and politicians have been forced to confront a long-evaded question: “Are French police racist?”

Here is my own answer, based on many visits to the multi-racial banlieues (suburbs) over the years. Yes, some – not all – French police are racist. The Police Nationale are, in my opinion, worse than the Gendarmerie.

READ ALSO Gendarmes to policiers – who does what in the French police forces?

That may be an unfair comparison. Gendarmes mostly operate in towns and rural areas. They are less exposed to the violence, crime and racial complexities of France’s cities and troubled inner suburbs.

To understand the failures, difficulties and dangers of policing in the banlieue, you should watch – or rewatch – the film Les Misérables which won the César for best movie in February. The film is frank about police attitudes to racial minorities. It is also honest about the near impossible task that the police face.

In my visits to the Paris banlieues after the riots of 2005, I was sometimes helped and guided by a young film-maker called Ladj Ly. We spoke to dozens of kids of African and North African origin about the systematic harassment and violence that they received from police.

There were also many people that we couldn’t speak to – gangs of young, and not so young, men standing at the foot of tower blocks. “Trop compliqué,” Ladj would say.

Fifteen years later, nothing much has changed – except that Ladj Ly is the much-decorated director of Les Misérables. 

Several events in recent days have combined to force France to face up to the deeply embedded racism in its own forces of law and order – not institutional racism but something uncomfortably close to it.

Soon after George Floyd’s death at police hands in Minneapolis, new evidence emerged to cast doubts on the death of a young, French black man as he resisted arrest in Val d’Oise north of Paris in July 2016.

Adama Traore’s death, the evidence suggested, may have been caused by the method – plaquage ventral or “prone restraint”  – used by gendarmes to immobilise him.

READ ALSO Who is Adama Traore and why are there protests across France in his name?

It also emerged that two large Facebook groups, reserved for French police and gendarmes, seethed with brutally racist messages and insults. Over 17,000 people belong to those two groups. That amounts to about one in 15 of all French law enforcement officers.

Separately, six police officers in Rouen were suspended after they were found to have exchanged racist and white-supremacist messages online about a black colleague.

The death of Traore, 24, is NOT a clear cut case of police brutality –  unlike the callous, videoed killing of George Floyd. A previously largely ignored campaign by his family to have his case re-opened attracted over 20,000 people to a demonstration outside the Palais de Justice in Paris last week.

Many of those people were sincere in their demands for a reopening of the Traore case and a change in official attitudes towards cases of racism in the police. They were joined by the usual suspects of the hard and ultra-left who want to embarrass the government or destroy “the system”.

READ ALSO: No, Paris suburbs are not all deprived and crime-ridden

A black CRS  (riot police) officer was insulted by both black and white demonstrators and called a vendu – a sell-out. To suggest that no black person should be a police officer and all black people should hate the police is also a form of racism. The President of SOS-Racisme, Dominique Sopo, refused to criticise this stupid and counter-productive attack.

In other words, France’s long overdue debate about racism in the police threatens to become hysterically divided along political-tribal lines – like almost everything else these days.

President Emmanuel Macron and the rest of the government are evidently embarrassed at having to face such questions in the context of George Floyd’s death. They would much rather have tut-tutted about the iniquities of race relations in America.

Macron reminded the interior minister Christopher Castaner on Sunday that he had asked him in January to “make proposals to improve the professional ethics of the forces of order”.

Several measures were hurriedly announced by Castaner the following day. Some are welcome – including more independence for the internal agencies which investigate police and gendarmerie wrong-doing (known as the “beef and carrots”).

Castaner said that the étranglement, or neck hold, method of immobilising suspects was now banned. He said nothing about the “prone restraint” used on Adama Traore.

But one of the policy changes he announced is foolish.

In future, he said, all officers who face “authentic suspicions” (soupçons averés) of racist behaviour must be suspended immediately. What on earth is an “authentic suspicion”? Such a policy is an invitation to false accusation, which will further complicate policing and worsen police and community relations in the banlieues.

On the other hand, the reaction of the centre-right and far-right opposition politicians was typically short-sighted and pig-headed. They said Castaner was taking the side of “criminals” against the law – equivalent to suggesting that all crime is committed by non-whites.

Jordan Bardella, the new fresh face of the Rassemblement National, accused the government of surrendering to “indigenist” (ie pro-black and brown) forces, Christian Jacob of the centre right Républicains said that all allegations of police violence in France were a “lie” and that “racist police in France…do not exist.”

READ ALSO How the 'yellow vests' forced France to have a conversation about police violence

That is precisely the see-no-evil attitude taken by successive French governments which has allowed racist behaviour to survive in the police – and to a lesser extent in the gendarmerie.  It was anger at years of police harassment and discrimination, triggered by callous police behaviour which led to the death of two teenage boys, which caused the riots which swept through the banlieues of all French cities in 2005.

A much bigger and more honest debate is needed on all sides – including a recognition of the dangers and difficulties faced by the police; including a recognition that police recruitment and training in France should be overhauled. There should also be higher police pay across the board and a new drive to diversify the ranks – especially the senior ranks – of police and gendarmerie.

France claims to be a Republic founded on values. It cannot sustain that claim if some members of the forces who defend the Republic insult those values online and trample them in public.

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Reader question: Do French police have the right to see my ID?

French police have some quite surprisingly wide-ranging powers that apply to everyone in France, whether resident or visitor.

Reader question: Do French police have the right to see my ID?

The Local subscribers in France are no doubt, responsible and law-abiding people – but, even so, it is very possible that they will find themselves in situations that involve contact with the police.

One reason for police to stop an ordinary civilian is for a contrôle d’identité (identity check). This is when a police officer stops to check your identity. 

This can only happen under certain conditions: 

  • the officer suspects you have committed or will commit a crime; 
  • you are in a ‘dangerous’ location where crime is known to occur; 
  • the public prosecutor has ordered a particular area to be watched; 
  • or you are operating a motorised vehicle (a contrôle routière).

If you’re driving, officers have the power to pull you over for an identity check – even if you were driving safely and within the speed limit – and a search of the vehicle and/or luggage may be carried out.

If you refuse to provide proof of identity, the police can find you guilty of refusing to obey or find you guilty of contempt and rebellion. Really.

READ ALSO ‘Don’t mess with French cops’ – Top tips for dealing with police in France

If you are not carrying any document that could prove your identity, the officer can take you to a police station to check your identity there. If this happens, the verification process must not last longer than four hours from the first request for ID – in Mayotte, this period is eight hours.

If you maintain your refusal to be identified, or if there is no other means of establishing your identity, the public prosecutor or the investigating judge may authorise the taking of fingerprints and photos.

Refusing to submit to fingerprinting or having a photograph taken is punishable by a fine of up to €3,750 and three months in prison.

Activists and NGOs argue that police practice racial profiling when they perform ID checks and it’s true that these ‘random’ checks seem to happen more frequently to people of colour.  

READ ALSO What to do if you are arrested in France

Non-French citizens who are resident in France may also have to prove their right to residency – a passport or residence permit is acceptable as, importantly, is the confirmation of anyone with you who is either a French citizen or legally resident in France.

READ ALSO EXPLAINED: What are your legal rights as a foreigner in France?

In France, it is strongly recommended that you carry some form of ID at all times, just in case you are stopped by officials. In fact, no text obliges you to have an identity card but if you are subject to an identity check, the procedure will take longer if you cannot present an appropriate document.

French citizens have ID cards, but if you’re not French then a passport or residency card such as a carte de séjour are the most usual ways to prove ID. 

Equally, you may be required to prove your identity for any number of administrative reasons – which makes it easier to have some form of ID with you.

These include, for example, the following situations:

  • Examination or competition;
  • Registration at Pôle Emploi;
  • Registering on electoral rolls and voting in elections;
  • Certain banking operations (payment by cheque, withdrawal at the counter of your bank);
  • Picking up a parcel from the post office
  • A trip abroad