Minority communities in France have experienced a surge in police fines during the pandemic, a new report by Reuters found, which many say points to discrimination from officers against non-white citizens.
Using department-level immigrant population figures from France’s official statistics agency and the interior ministry’s counts of pandemic-related fines issued in each department during the COVID-19 lockdown between March and May 2020, Reuters found that French police issued more fines in areas that had the highest number of immigrants.
In the five departments with the highest concentration of immigrants -- which means 19 per cent or more of the total department's population -- police issued almost 26 fines per 1,000 people. This rate is 54 per cent higher than anywhere else in the country, where police fined almost 17 people per 1,000.
The same trend was reported in the same period in Paris: Reuters found that in the French capital during the first COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, police issued many more fines in the five districts with the highest percentages of residents of non-European descent.
In those districts, police issued 58 fines per 1,000 population -- about 40 per cent more than the average of almost 42 fines per 1,000 population across the other 15 districts. An exception was Paris’ 8th district, which had the highest rate of fines despite having a relatively small minority population.
France's interior ministry did not give Reuters access to non-pandemic related police fines, despite the news agency submitting a freedom of information request to access the data.
The surge in police fines experienced by minority communities in France could be explained in part by a new string of policies aimed at curbing urban crime implemented by president Emmanuel Macron, which include giving police officers greater authority to issue fines.
Nationwide data confirm this phenomenon, showing that the number of non-traffic-related fines in France has grown by more than six times -- from 240,000 in 2018 to 1.54 million last year, according to the interior ministry agency for fines. In 2020, as the country faced several pandemic-related lockdowns, the number surpassed 2 million.
Supporters of the new policies say the fines reduce the burden on the justice system by keeping minor infractions out of court. But critics say the fines allow police to dispense sanctions at their own discretion, without proper accountability. Some lawyers and activists have expressed their concern that this power in the hand of the police could be used by officers to target poorer people and those from ethnic minority backgrounds.
French laws strictly limit the collection of data about an individual’s race or ethnicity, making it difficult to determine exactly how the fines impact ethnic minority groups. But Reuters' research, which includes interviews with people who have been repeatedly fined by police during March and May 2020, confirms that police have issued more fines in areas with the heaviest percentage of minority populations.
Many of the people fined said they received the penalties without even realising they were accused of committing an infraction, as the fines were issued remotely -- something that's considered a breach of police procedures for non-traffic infractions, according to legal specialists.
"There is systemic discrimination," said Alice Achache, a lawyer representing some Paris residents who are challenging fines.
Macron has previously said that there is no "systemic racism" in the French police, but in a significant ruling in 2021, the Paris Court of Appeal found that discrimination was behind police identity checks of three high school students -- French nationals of Moroccan, Malian and Comorian origin -- at a Paris train station in 2017. Each individual received €1,500 in compensation, plus legal costs.