Several court rulings across France in recent years have found identity checks carried out by police were discriminatory.
A group of six NGOs including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch is mounting a class action against the French state to demand police stop "discriminatory identity checks."
The procedure was initiated in January when the NGOs called on the French government to carry out "structural reforms" and "take concrete measures" to stop those checks.
The authorities had four months to respond but failed to do so prompting the organisations to file a request with the Council of State — a body that acts as both legal adviser to the state and supreme court for administrative justice.
In their petition, the NGOs call for the code of criminal procedure to be amended to "explicitly prohibit discrimination in identity checks" or to provide "any person checked with proof of the check", such as a receipt.
Their procedure is inspired by an American precedent: in 2013, after a class action, the American justice system had "decided to transform police practice in identity checks in the State of New York, which led to a drastic reduction in checks", one of the NGOs' lawyers, Antoine Lyon Caen, explained.
The 450-page petition also includes testimonies, studies and previous court cases documenting the discrimination including a June ruling by the Paris Court of Appeal which found that the identity check of three high school students at the Gare du Nord in 2017 had been "discriminatory."
"This is something that comes up very often in the stories of young men in particular," Issa Coulibaly, President of Pazapas Belleville, another association involved in the proceedings, said.
This type of control has "a strong impact on their feeling of exclusion, with the impression that they are not fully-fledged French citizens because they are treated differently," he added.
Children as young as 10 have been subjected to identity checks, according to a report released in June by Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Some "described being forced to put their hands against a wall or car, spread their legs, and submit to invasive pat-downs, including buttocks and genitalia," HRW wrote in a statement.
Back in 2016, the state had already been condemned by the Court de Cassation — one of the country's top courts — for identity checks based on features.
A 2017 report from the Defender of Rights — an independent body tasked with ensuring equality rights are respected — found that "a young man perceived as black or Arab (...) has a 20 times higher probability" of being checked than the rest of the population.
President Emmanuel Macron also acknowledged in an interview in December that "Today, when you have a skin colour that is not white, you are controlled much more (...) You are identified as a problem factor and this is unbearable."
Police unions reacted strongly to these statements, rejecting accusations of racism and calling for a complete halt to identity checks.
"It's a subject that has moved on: we talk about it more than before, but in terms of solutions we're at ground zero," Coulibaly said.
"This is why we have decided to use the law, which can perhaps force the state to put in place the measures that many have been proposing for years and which exist in other countries," he explained.