[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below]
Called contrôle au faciès in French, i.e. police identity checks based on how one looks, a.k.a. ethnic/racial profiling. This has long been a practice of the French police. It is inscribed in its DNA. One sees it on the streets and metro/train stations of France almost every day. And if one is dark-skinned or looks even vaguely non-white, it is often experienced every day, even several times a day (I have personally experienced it four times, though not in some twenty years). Demands to produce ID by cops—and there are always several of them, as the police in France travel in packs—are never accompanied with a justification. They are not motivated by a suspicion that one may have committed a crime, or that one may be a particular person the police are looking for, or may even be an illegal alien. One is controlled, as it were, for no other reason than one is black or looks Maghrebi. That’s it. It’s a reflex, just something the French police do because that’s what they’ve always done. It’s part of the culture of French policing. And when it happens, one is well-advised not to ask why one is being controlled, as one risks being arrested for outrage à agent public—of behaving disrespectfully toward a person invested with public authority, a misdemeanor (délit) in the Code Pénal—, prosecuted, fined, and possibly sentenced to up to six months in prison.
The contrôle au faciès—the practice of which is, in fact, illegal, on paper at least (but try proving it)—is, not surprisingly, bitterly resented by France’s Maghrebi and African/Antillean-origin population, and particularly by the younger generation. It is the principal factor in the execrable relations between those populations and the police—and that is often played out in rioting—, and is one of the factors in the more general alienation felt by so many toward the institutions of the French state. The French police are hated by a part of the citizenry in a way one does not see elsewhere. On this score, France is one of the very few democratic states where the police systematically demand IDs of people who are simply minding their own business. E.g. I read last year (I don’t have the source handy) that during a Franco-German police exchange program, German police agents visiting France were astonished to observe their French counterparts carrying out ID checks on the street, as it would never occur to a German cop to ask for someone’s ID unless an actual offense had been committed. For this reason, among others, I have long insisted that the French police are the worst in the Western world.
But, lo and behold, change may be on the way. PM Jean-Marc Ayrault announced yesterday that the government, following through on a pledge made by François Hollande during the campaign, was preparing a decree that would require the police to issue a receipt (récépisée) to any person subjected to an ID check, specifying the reasons for the check, and with the cop’s name. Excellent initiative! The police unions are all up in arms at the prospect, protesting that it will complicate their work—though such a law has existed in the UK since 1984, where it doesn’t seem to pose a problem for the police—and is totally unnecessary in any case, as they are absolutely not racist (my, who would ever think such a thing!). And not surprisingly, the police are being backed by the right on this (e.g. on BFM last night, Le Figaro editorialist Yves Thréard—quel réac—was denouncing the government’s plan). Let’s hope Ayrault and Manuel Valls hold firm and don’t cave in to the police syndicats. Affaire à suivre.
For more on this subject, see the report by Human Rights Watch from last January, “The Root of Humiliation”: Abusive Identity Checks in France (pour la traduction française du rapport, voir ici). Also see the June 2009 report by the Open Society Justice Initiative, Profiling Minorities: A Study of Stop-and-Search Practices in Paris (également traduit en français).
UPDATE: Arthur Goldhammer has linked to this post on his French Politics blog and which has engendered several substantive comments. I am taking the liberty of copying-and-pasting one of them, signed by Philippe, as I identify entirely with what he has written
The contrôle d’identité is as French as le gigot d’agneau . Growing up in Paris I witnessed hundreds of occasions where contingents of flics, stationed in some strategic corridor at Gare Montparnasse or Gare du Nord would arbitrarily stop anyone deemed suspicious. In 15 years in New York I’ve never seen a single instance of someone being stopped and asked to produce leurs papiers. I’m aware of the stop and frisk controversy but it is controversial and quite exceptional compared to what occurs on French streets (not that it shouldn’t be stopped).
Actually, the behavior of the French police and the docility of the French public is a continuous source of amazement and (mild) outrage for me and as an amateur photographer I try to document it whenever possible. This leads to uncomfortable situations.
On my last visit to France in December I saw two police officers run out of a parked car and arbitrarily pounce on an unsuspecting Scandinavian tourist who happened to be loitering on the sidewalk. They brutally pushed him against a wall and demanded that he produce ID. Note that this person had done nothing. They let him go after the check. I took a photo – you can see it here.
It is not illegal to photograph the police but one of the officers nonetheless took issue with what I was doing. You can see her hand in the photo – trying to block me from taking the shot. I told her had the right photograph. She demanded that I leave and I asked: under what ordinance or law ? She threatened to arrest me. At that point a friend pulled me away. This was quite shocking to me -she actually put her hand on the camera. I take dozens of shots of police every year in NY (and throughout the world) without incident (and I have the photos to back this up). In France however, any attempt to photograph the police invariably leads to “qu’est ce que vous faites ?” or “non, c’est interdit” or “dégagez” or “circulez” or, my favorite, because of what it reveals about the relationship of the French with authority and official statuses : “Vous êtes journaliste ?” This was the first time however that an officer acted out physically against me.
I want to add two related anecdotes of my own, both of which occurred at my RER station, in a banlieue close to the city. In the first, from two or three years ago, I entered the hall of the station during PM rush hour—so there were a lot people—and saw a dozen or so cops, who were not there because anything in particular had happened but just to control IDs of persons they felt like controlling. An utterly banal, typical scene in France. There was a loud dispute going on between a couple of the cops and a person they were controlling, a middle-aged black man, normally dressed, and who, given the way he was speaking French, was manifestly not an undocumented immigrant from Mali, the Congo, or wherever. Nor had he hopped the turnstile—a venerable French sport—, as he was not being issued a ticket. The man was visibly very angry that he was being controlled—manifestly for the misdemeanor of being black—and was demanding to know why. I stopped to watch the scene but within a minute one of the loitering cops came over to me, glared, and ordered me to “circulez” (to move on). I wanted to tell him that I was a citizen minding his own business, that this was a public place—is there any place more public than a train station at rush hour?—, and that I had every right to stand there, but quickly thought better of it, as I would have very likely been arrested illico and charged with outrage. Welcome to France.
Second anecdote, from a few months ago. Entering the station in the morning, there were several cops who had a young black male against the wall past the turnstiles (which he had probably hopped). A man was filming the spectacle with his mobile phone. When the cops—who were RATP police, not Police Nationale—saw him they ordered him to stop. He refused, saying he had every right to do it and was going to post it on the Internet. He then headed up the escalator to the platform and with the half-dozen cops pursing him. At the top of the escalator they demanded that he turn over the phone or else they would call the regular police. They were very agitated, clearly more concerned about having been filmed while they were doing their job than in continuing to do their job (as they no doubt left behind the young man they were controlling and enabled others to hop the turnstile in their absence). As the train arrived and I had to get to work, I didn’t see the denouement. Another banal, typical day in the life of the French police and its interface with the citizenry.
One comment on what Philippe said about New York: He has no doubt not personally witnessed any stop-and-frisks by the NYPD, as these mainly happen in minority-dominated parts of town, not on the streets or subway stations of Manhattan, Brooklyn Heights, Park Slope, etc.
2nd UPDATE: Art Goldhammer has a follow-up post on my above update and with some very good comments of his own, including this
But there is a difference between the behavior of the police in the US and the police in France. The French police seem to make a point of conducting checks in very public places: in railroad and Metro stations, on busy streets, etc. And often they go out of their way to make it clear that there is no particular reason for the check. It has always seemed to me that there was a reason for this publicity: the police wanted their action to be visible, they intended to assert that, even if they might not have the right to do what they were doing, they had the authority, since no one would or could stop them.
Art nails it here. The police do their controls in very public places precisely because they want to be seen doing it and not only to assert their authority. I am reminded here of an article I read in Le Monde or Libé in 1994 or ’95—Charles Pasqua was interior minister at the time—, when there was a fear of terrorism from Algeria spilling into France (and which did happen). The police were carrying out ID controls on Maghrebis on a massive scale, not only on the streets and metro stations but also stopping cars driven by Maghrebi lookers. The main reason for this mass contrôle au faciès, as the article quoted someone in the know as saying—I have the article filed away somewhere, so I could eventually verify—, was less to nab suspected terrorists than to reassure the population. In other words, the police controlled the Arabs because they assumed, probably correctly, that regular French folks wanted to see them doing so, to know that the police were doing their job, as it were. And that the Français moyens would wholeheartedly approve of the police action here. As they did, e.g., on the sinister evening of October 17, 1961, when Parisian passers-by applauded the police as they clubbed and brutalized Algerian men, women, and children peacefully marching. When it comes to the French police and persons hailing from French colonies, past and present, there is a history…
A (rhetorical) question: do French voters or politicians—or the police themselves—comprehend what a huge waste of time and resources the identity control operations represent? That having dozens of police agents controlling IDs for no good purpose—and diverting them away from catching criminals—is not an optimal use of the taxpayer’s euro?
BTW, I found what Claude Guéant said in the Le Monde article Art linked to absolutely breathtaking. This is a big difference between the right and the left. And is yet one more reminder of why I am on the latter and can never be on the former.
3rd UPDATE: The Open Society Justice Initiative has a report out in French, dated September 2013, L’égalité trahie: l’impact des contrôles au faciès en France. A search of Open Society’s website yields links to numerous commentaries on the issue.