PARIS — Three young men have won a yearslong legal battle against the French state after a court ruled they had been subject to discriminatory police checks in 2017, when they were high-school students.
The ruling by the Paris appeals court on Tuesday, which overturned a lower court decision, is not the first to find French authorities at fault for discriminatory practices. But the decision came amid a growing and tense debate about brutality and racism in the French police as activists, frustrated with the pace of change, file an increasing number of legal challenges to force policing reforms.
The students — Ilyas Haddaji, Mamadou Camara and Zakaria Hadji Mmadi — were returning from a class trip to Brussels in March 2017 when police officers at the Gare du Nord train station in Paris stopped them to check their identification.
Aged 17 to 18 at the time, with families originally from Morocco, Mali and the Comoros, the three young men said they felt humiliated by being singled out and made to open their bags in front of the 15 other students on the trip, as well as teaching staff and other bystanders in the bustling station. None of the others had their identification checked.
The three students, who at the time were in their final year of high school in Épinay-sur-Seine, a northern suburb of Paris, filed a suit against the French state later that year, accusing the police of racially profiling them. The Paris appeals court agreed.
“The physical characteristics of the individuals who were stopped, most notably their origin, their age and their sex, were the real cause of the stop,” the appeals court judges wrote in their ruling, adding that the police check was therefore discriminatory and “constitutes a grave fault by the State.”
Each student was awarded 1,500 euros, or about $1,800, in damages.
Anti-discrimination activists and residents of France’s immigrant-heavy urban suburbs have long complained about police identity checks. Police unions, who feel increasingly embattled themselves, argue that the checks are a necessary tool to stop crime. But activists say the stops are often motivated by racial bias.
Earlier this year, six nongovernmental organizations used a rare collective legal action to put the French state on notice and force it to address “systemic discriminatory practices by the police,” accusing the government of neglecting its duty to end discriminatory police identity checks — a practice they called “widespread” and “deeply rooted.”
Slim Ben Achour, a lawyer who represented the three students and is also involved in the collective suit, said the ruling showed that while police testimony traditionally prevailed in court, judges were increasingly receptive to the plaintiff’s side of the story in discrimination cases, especially after a landmark 2016 ruling by France’s highest court, the first ever to fault the state for racial profiling.
“I truly believe that there is a change,” said Mr. Ben Achour, who has worked on multiple discrimination cases, including one last year in which the state was found guilty of a “grave fault” for violence and unjustified checks and arrests by 11 police officers targeting minors in the 12th arrondissement of Paris.
In its ruling this week, the appeals court criticized police authorities for reacting sluggishly to the 2017 incident at the Gare du Nord, failing to get security camera footage in time and writing up a lackluster report nearly two months afterward.
“Equality is at the top of the republican edifice, and judges are very sensitive to that notion,” Mr. Ben Achour said.
A lower court in Paris had sided with the state in 2018, ruling that because most of the students’ classmates were also from ethnic minorities but had not been stopped for ID checks, the plaintiffs couldn’t argue that they had been singled out because of their skin color.
But the Paris appeals court argued that it made more sense to compare the treatment of the three students with that of the other disembarking passengers who were not stopped. The state failed to prove that difference in treatment was justified, the court ruled.
President Emmanuel Macron acknowledged in an interview with the online media outlet Brut last year that “when you have a skin color that isn’t white, you are stopped a lot more, and even more so when you are a boy.” A 2017 report by the official human rights ombudsman found that “young men perceived to be Black or Arab” were 20 times as likely to be subjected to identity checks as the rest of the population.
In an attempt to address the issue, Mr. Macron’s government established an online platform to consult citizens on discrimination issues last February. Claire Hédon, the current human rights ombudsman, told Franceinfo on Wednesday that 5,000 people had called the platform since then. The ruling this week “shows that today we are moving forward in the fight against discrimination,” Ms. Hédon said.