France denies police racism is widespread, but evidence tells another story


The recent riots in France, sparked by the deadly police shooting of a young man of North African descent, once more raised the question whether French police unfairly target ethnic minorities. While French authorities continue to say the national police force does not have a problem with racism, research shows the contrary.

“Racism and discrimination, stop-and-search, are part of the activities of any police force, everywhere,” says political scientist Jacques De Maillard, who studies policing in France and around the world.

But when it comes to acknowledging racism within their ranks, some countries and police forces are better than others.

“If you don’t say there is a problem, you won’t be able to deal with it,” De Maillard told RFI, pointing to French authorities’ insistence that discriminatory policing is not widespread.

A deep dive into urban and police violence in France, in the Spotlight on France podcast

Spotlight on France, episode 98
Spotlight on France, episode 98 © RFI

At the end of June, people took to the streets to protest against police violence and the excessive use of force in France’s poor, multi-ethnic suburbs after Nahel Merzouk, a 17-year-old with a Moroccan father and an Algerian mother, was shot dead by a police officer during a traffic stop.

The five days of rioting that followed his death brought back memories of riots in 2005 that were set off by the death of two teenagers – one black, one of North African descent – during a police chase.

Then as today, the rioting sparked debates over police violence and racism. French police have been repeatedly accused of using racial profiling in identity checks, and statistics show that minorities are more often targets of police searches and violence than the rest of the population.

The large majority – if not all – of the victims of the 16 fatal police shootings during traffic stops that have been recorded in France over the last 18 months have been men of colour, according to lawyer Arié Alimi.

No admission of systemic racism

And yet Paris police prefect Laurent Nunez has repeatedly denied that French police are systematically racist.

“Yes, it happens that a certain number of police officers use racist language, but you are talking about systemic racism,” he told a Paris city council meeting on 5 July, a day after telling French media there was no racism in the French police.

Responding to a question posed by a Greens council member, Nunez said: “You have talked about systemic racism that has corrupted the police. That is completely false, and I cannot let you say that.”

While France officially bans the collection of statistics on race and ethnicity, studies have contradicted Nunez’s and others’ assertions.

Not every police officer is racist, says De Maillard, but racism “is part of the way this institution works”, with racial profiling in identity checks a key part of French policing of the suburbs, or banlieues.

In a 2017 survey of 5,000 people, France’s civil liberties ombudsman found that 80 percent of people perceived as black or Arab said they’d been stopped by police in the previous five years, compared to 16 percent of the rest of those surveyed.

French President Emmanuel Macron acknowledged the problem of racial profiling in 2020.

“When you have a skin colour that is not white, you are stopped much more,” he told Brut media. “You are identified as part of a problem, and that’s intolerable.”

Some notorious cases of police violence in France in recent years:

  • Nahel Merzouk, 17, shot dead by police at a traffic stop on 27 June 2023 in Nanterre. Video showed the teenager being shot at point-blank range while the vehicle was stationary, contradicting the initial police statement. The officer was charged with voluntary homicide and detained awaiting trial.
  • Alhoussein Camara, 19, shot dead at a traffic stop in Angouleme on 14 June 2023. The officer was charged with voluntary homicide.
  • Cedric Chouviat, 42, motorbike delivery rider who died in Paris in January 2020 after being held in a chokehold by police during a traffic stop. Three officers were charged with manslaughter
  • Michel Zecler, 41, music producer, beaten up and racially insulted by white police officers in Paris on 21 November 2020 for not wearing a face mask during the Covid lockdown. The incident was captured on CCTV, and the four officers involved are awaiting trial, charged with assault.
  • Theodore Luhaka, 22, disabled for life after being sodomised with a police baton during a stop and search on 2 February 2017 in Aulnay-sous-Bois. Three officers are to stand trial for willful violence in January 2024.
  • Adama Traoré, 24, died in police custody after being pinned to the ground by three officers, following a police chase in Beaumont-sur-Oise on 19 July 2016. Experts concluded he had died of heart failure, aggravated by the use of physical restraint. No charges have been brought against the police and his family continues to campaign for justice.
  • Bouna Traore, 15, and Zyed Benna, 17, electrocuted to death in an electricity sub-station in Clichy-sous-Bois after a police chase on 27 October 2005. Their deaths set off three weeks of rioting. The two police officers accused of failing to help the teens were acquitted in 2015.

On 30 June, Ravina Shamdasani, spokesperson for the United Nations human rights office, said Merzouk’s death and the rioting it sparked was “a moment for [France] to seriously address the deep issues of racism and discrimination in law enforcement”.

But the French Foreign Ministry responded defensively. 

“Any accusation of racism or systemic discrimination in the police force in France is totally unfounded,” it said in a statement.

De Maillard points to France’s “tradition of republican universalism”, which denies the existence of race, and therefore racism.

For political reasons, many politicians also feel the need to defend the police against criticism.

In France, you have a long tradition of the police existing to protect the government, to protect the public institutions. Not to protect the people,” De Maillard said. “At the beginning, they were in charge of protecting the king.”

Few changes since 2005 riots

Whether the problem is systemic or, as Nunez argues, down to a few bad apples, most observers agree the police are not sufficiently trained.

“There is no doubt that that there are problems within the national police,” Driss Aït Youssef, who has advised the government on security issues, told RFI.

He highlights “problems with training, with guidelines, difficulty passing on information, notably in relation to the population”. 

And despite the lessons that could have been learned from the 2005 riots, French policing of the banlieues has changed very little.

The French police didn’t reform themselves,” says De Maillard. “If there has been a move, it is rather in the direction of militarisation, of being tougher in the way they intervene in these neighbourhoods.”

Police feel under siege

The 2015 terror attacks, along with the Yellow Vest protests that started in 2018, have put the police under a lot of pressure, leaving many officers feeling they are doing society’s dirty work with little to no recognition.  

In the banlieues, police often see themselves as being at war with a hostile population, which De Maillard says is not altogether false.

After years of feeling they are victims of discrimination and targets of unfair ID checks, some young people have developed a real hatred of the police.

During the recent riots, officers reported being directly attacked. 

“Messages are circulating on social media calling for people to physically attack police,” Thierry Clair, of the Unsa police union, told RFI. “In a way it’s urban guerrilla warfare… We’re faced with particularly determined people, with their faces hidden.”

In such situations, De Maillard argues that it is up to the police to de-escalate tension, but unions have pushed the opposite way.

Some 70 percent of police officers are unionised, he says, and “some of them – not all – are 100 percent in defence of the police: the police is perfect and cannot be criticised”.

union tract released on 30 June, three days into the riots that followed Merzouk’s death, referred to police in a “state of war” against “savage hordes”, and the need to eliminate “rodents”. 

Radicalised officers

This hardening attitude has turned many police officers to the far right, which supports a hard-line approach to policing. 

If you look at the polls, French police officers do vote for the far right,” says De Maillard. “I would not say that the far right – as far as I know – has infiltrated the police. But I would say that there has been a kind of convergence.”

For Aït Youssef, this shift to the right can be explained by the “absence of hierarchical support, absence of means” and a “confrontation with a certain type of young person of minority background living in rough neighbourhoods”. 

But De Maillard warns that the problems faced by the police should not be reduced to the issue of violent youth. Nor is it all about the police themselves.

It’s much more global than that,” he says. “It has to do with poor neighbourhoods, and the difficulties of the French public administration to reform itself and be more open to civil society.”

In terms of prioritising reform, he says, “the police should be much more self-reflective”.

For a deep dive into urban and police violence in France’s banlieues, listen to the Spotlight on France podcast, episode 98. Listen here. 

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