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Paris — France’s highest administrative court will on Friday consider its first class action against the state, alleging racial profiling by police — and may in the process shape future social activism.

Six human rights organisations argue that the police systematically discriminate, especially against young Arab and black men, when deciding who to stop on routine patrols.

If successful, they could open the way for similar broad legal challenges in a country where activism has traditionally taken the form of direct protest, and where class actions only became possible in 2014 and remain rare.

The case, supported by statements from 40 victims as well as police, asks the Conseil d’Etat (State Council) to require concrete reforms from the government, including limiting police powers to check ID and mandating a record of checks.

“It is not acceptable that kids, at a young age, have to learn that their skin colour is a problem,” said Omer Mas Capitolan, president of one of the six organisations, Community House of Development in Solidarity.

The government and police are already under scrutiny after an officer shot dead Nahel, a teenager of North African descent, during a traffic stop in June, bringing long-simmering resentment among urban immigrant communities to the boil.

The UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination decried the “continuing practice of racial profiling” and urged France to address “structural and systemic causes of racial discrimination” in the police.

The interior ministry did not answer a request for comment, but has previously said that “ethnic profiling by law enforcement is banned”, and that racism in the police is not systemic.

However, France limits the use of statistics on race and ethnicity, and experts say it can no longer turn a blind eye to accusations by rights groups that racism colours police recruitment, training, doctrine and practice.

Since 2016, France has paid damages to individuals in three cases where police ID checks were found to have been discriminatory.

But the lawsuit — before a chamber reserved for cases of “remarkable importance” — does not seek monetary compensation.

“It’s looking to the future — to trace all the necessary ways to eradicate this wrong,” said Antoine Lyon-Caen, lawyer for the six organisations, which include Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and the Open Society Justice Initiative.

Since 2014, France has allowed organisations to file lawsuits on behalf of a group harmed by a policy or practice, later widening their application beyond consumer claims. Such actions often fail, though, and legislators are discussing ways to facilitate them.

In the US, class actions have long featured in civil rights advocacy.

In France, however, “judicial advocacy is not a tradition, this is a first [class action against the state], the tradition is going onto the streets,” said Sophie Latraverse, a lawyer and anti-discrimination expert.

In arguments provided to the court, Lyon-Caen cites as a model a 2013 ruling against New York city over racial profiling and unconstitutional police stop-and-search practices. “This judgment brings hope as it puts in place measures to transform the police, and a monitoring mechanism,” he said.

As for Friday’s verdict, Gwénaële Calvès, law professor at University Cergy-Pontoise, said it would also send a wider message on class actions in France: “Go for it — or — it’s not worth it.”

A member of the Conseil d’Etat will make a recommendation at the hearing and a judgment will follow in the coming weeks.


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