Saturday, 2 June 2012

Welcome news on France's abusive stop and search laws

French police check the ID of a man with suspicious-looking glasses
The manner in which stop and search checks are carried out in France has long been a matter of serious public concern, because not only can the police stop and search anyone they wish, they do so with an almost total lack of accountability.

Police officers here are not currently required to identify themselves to those they are searching or whose ID they are checking, and nor do they wear their numbers or any other identifying insignia on their uniforms. This means that should they abuse their position of authority during checks it is very difficult to trace them afterwards. This has led to accusations that some officers may have the impression that they can get away with abusive behaviour.

Another major concern is that stop and search checks are carried out almost uniquely on the basis of racial profiling, despite police claims to the contrary. I have lost count of the number of checks I have witnessed over the years, but I cannot recall a single instance where the person being controlled was anything other than someone of Maghrebi, African, or other manifestly foreign origin.

But all this may soon be a thing of the past with the news, announced by Interior minister Manuel Valls and publically supported by Prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, that legislation is being prepared which will require police to issue a receipt to the person being controlled. Mandatory information would include the officer's name, number, details of where and when the check took place, and the name and racial origin of the person being controlled.

Police unions and other representatives are of course furious at this prospect, although they shouldn't be. They claim that they are being stigmatised as racists, but the introduction of this system will mean that they will have the chance to either prove that they are not, or change their ways if they are. Either way it will improve their image in the long term, given the results of trials carried out in other countries.

The statistical results of testing in other European countries clearly demonstrate that whereas checks clearly targeted ethnic minorities as a priority at first, tactics slowly changed over time, to the point where checks on indigenous members of the population are now more common than they were before, and they actually result in a higher conviction rate for offences than do checks on ethnic minorities.

This was a very courageous announcement for Valls to make, and not only because he admirably chose to state clearly that he had been directly inspired by Anglo-Saxon laws on the matter (French pride and politicians are normally loath to admit that they are influenced by anything Anglo-Saxon.)

The proposed legislation is also to be applauded because of its timing. The way in which French elections are organised - with just a few weeks separating the presidential and legislative parliamentary elections - means that that the country lives in a sort of legislative limbo during this period. This explains why President François Hollande has not yet unveiled some of the more controversial economic belt-tightening policies that he will be forced to announce once the elections are over.

Both he and Prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault are to be admired for their willingness to take an electoral risk vis-à-vis centrist and floating voters by backing Manuel Valls in his efforts to impose more police accountability for stop and search checks. The French police have, up to now, been relatively free to act anonymously, and I for one am happy that this era may soon be over.

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