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Why Racial Discrimination Allegations In France Can Be Hard To Prove

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In France, young men who look Black or Arab are 20 times more likely to be stopped by police. That's according to the country's human rights ombudsman. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports.

JEREMY BARDAKJI: (Speaking French).

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: (Speaking French).

Two young men are acting as my guides in this public housing complex in a mixed neighborhood in the east of Paris. The 22-year-olds take me to a plaza where they used to hang out. Jeremy Bardakji (ph) says they were constantly harassed by the police.

BARDAKJI: (Through interpreter) I'd go out in the morning. My daily routine was to eat, sleep and get stopped by the police. I thought that was normal, that it was like that for everyone.

BEARDSLEY: Bardajki and his friend Lucas Swiatek are now part of a class-action lawsuit. Slim Ben Achour is the lawyer representing them.

SLIM BEN ACHOUR: We're suing the state in many, many cases to challenge police brutality and racial discrimination through litigation.

BEARDSLEY: Ben Achour says it can be difficult to prove because France does not keep statistics on race or religion since the Second World War when statistics made it easier for the authorities to round up Jews and deport them. Ben Achour says he gets that, but you can't fight discrimination if you don't measure it.

BEN ACHOUR: So we're in a Catch-22 because of the French Republic principles. And because we're all the same, we shouldn't talk about discrimination. We tend to think that we don't have to do the statistics. The statistics is too American.

BEARDSLEY: A recent Human Rights Watch report titled "They Talk To Us Like We're Dogs" documents how baseless and repetitive targeting of minorities is driving a deep wedge between communities and police while doing nothing to deter crime.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: In the video, a 13-year-old says he was first stopped at the age of 9 or 10. "I didn't think police were supposed to pat down 10-year-olds," he says. One plan to stop such abuses is to require the police to give out a receipt every time they stop someone. Mathieu Zagrodzki teaches law enforcement at the University of Versailles.

MATHIEU ZAGRODZKI: That was a way for people who were disproportionately stopped and searched to prove with those receipts that, for instance, they were stopped and searched five times in the same week.

BEARDSLEY: Police unions have always opposed the measure. Zagrodzki says it's been difficult for any government to reform the police.

ZADROGZKI: Law enforcement is a profession that is in a state of crisis in France.

BEARDSLEY: Zagrodzki says after the 2015 terrorist attacks and the long and violent yellow vest protest movement, the police have been under huge strain. Lawyer Ben Achour says it seems they no longer serve the public.

BEN ACHOUR: The police has two goals - chase and find delinquents and the guardian of freedom and rights. This second mission is completely forgot. The culture of the police in France is a culture of warriors.

BARDAKJI: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Back in the east of Paris, the young men are watching a video they shot of white officers manhandling black teenagers. That happened to Lucas Swiatek when he was just 16, and he says it's left him distrustful of the police.

LUCAS SWIATEK: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "I felt really lost," he says, "because the people who were supposed to be protecting us were instead hitting and insulting us." Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.