Thirteen Angry Men
In November 2011, Bocar, a teacher in his early thirties, had just had dinner with his parents and was leaving their flat in the centre of Saint-Ouen, a suburb of Paris, accompanied by his two younger sisters, aged 16 and 21. ‘I saw a group of eight or nine police officers, from the BAC,’ he told me (Brigade anti-criminalité). ‘One hurried towards me, took my arm and pushed me to the side. I asked him what he was doing. “Police,” he said, and shoved me to the wall. I tried turning and he shouted: “Police! Do you want me to taser you?” So I told him to do whatever he had to and that I would do the same and file a complaint to Internal Affairs. He realised there was something wrong then – saw that I was educated and knew what my rights were. I could feel his colleagues were embarrassed. Some were keeping my sisters to the side. The officer kept behaving in an intimidating way, checked my ID, didn’t find anything – I have no criminal record – searched me, and after 20 minutes he let me go.’
The next day, Bocar filed a complaint to Internal Affairs. He was told he wouldn’t be given any follow-up, as it was an internal police matter.
Under French law, the police can stop you and ask to see your ID if they suspect you of having committed an offence or being about to commit one. Unlike in the UK or in the US, they don’t give receipts. ‘How can you prove that you have been the victim of a wrongdoing if there is no receipt?’ Bocar said.
He decided to push it further. Along with 12 other men, he filed a complaint against the state backed by Stop le Contrôle au Faciès, a collective created in 2011 to fight against discriminatory stop and search. The 13 men are aged between 18 and 35. They come from different French cities. Some have good jobs, some are unemployed. They are all black or Arab (Bocar’s family is from Senegal). They all say they have been humiliated and scared by arbitrary identity checks. I asked Félix de Belloye, one of the lawyers representing the 13 men, if they were hoping to change the law. ‘No,’ he said. ‘We are arguing that these checks were illegal and this illegality is enough to condemn the state. We are also saying that as long as there is no written record of the checks the existing law is being ignored.’
The plaintiffs received unexpected support from Jacques Toubon, the ombudsman, who said the authorities should ‘take concrete measures to prevent and repress abusive identity checks’. Last month, his counsel argued that in this case, the burden of proof was on the state, to show that no discrimination took place, and not on the plaintiffs.
A 2009 study found that in Paris, individuals perceived as ‘black’ or ‘Arab’ were, respectively, six and eight times more likely to be stopped and searched than individuals perceived as ‘white’. France isn't alone in this: a 2012 study found that black people in the UK were up to 28 times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people.
During the 2012 presidential campaign, François Hollande promised that he would fight against discriminatory stop and frisks. Like votes for foreign citizens resident in France, the promise was forgotten when he came to power. Manuel Valls, the prime minister, soon decided he was against it, possibly influenced by the opposition of Alliance, a right-wing police union. Sihame Assbague, a spokesperson for Stop le Contrôle au Faciès, finds this baffling: ‘We have a left-wing government caving to a really right-wing police union.’
For Bocar, it is less surprising. ‘Promises? Since when politicians have met them? The other day, on the cover of Le Nouvel Observateur, there was a photo of Hollande's young advisers. They were all spruced up, members of the elite who went to Grandes Ecoles, posing in some posh setting that could have been the castle of Louis XVI. I thought: if these people think they represent France, a country where 10 per cent of people are unemployed, then they really have no clue. If politicians keep failing to understand this divide then we're heading to disaster.’
The plaintiffs lost a first trial in October 2013. The verdict in last month's trial is expected on 24 June. If they lose, de Belloye says they will take their case to the Cour de cassation, or the European Court of Human Rights.