French police checked IDs on ‘massive’ scale in 2021, no strategy defined -report says

By Layli Foroudi

PARIS (Reuters) -French police conducted identity checks on a “massive” scale in 2021, despite not having a doctrine to define their objectives or good practice during such checks, France’s public audit office, the Cour des comptes, said in a report on Wednesday.

The report detailed for the first time the number of ID checks carried out annually by police – 47 million in 2021 – a number that the president of the Cour des Comptes Pierre Moscovici described as “massive”. This number has been stable since 2018, the report said.

The Cour des Comptes is France’s supreme administrative audit institution and this report was carried out at the request of France’s human rights watchdog, the Defenseur des droits.

Despite its widespread use and central place in policing, “there is no doctrine on ID checks, [to define] why we do it,” said Moscovici, adding that “the absence of reflection is surprising” given public debate around its use and possible abuse.

Claire Hedon, the head of Defenseur des droits, told Reuters that this was an important report, which should impel the government to change public policy and improve traceability of ID checks.

“An ID check is the interruption of a person’s freedom, and so there must be a good reason for it – and I don’t know if we can justify 47 million ID checks,” she said, adding that previous estimates were around 10 million per year.

The government and police came under international scrutiny when a teenager of North African descent was shot dead during a traffic stop in June, stoking debates over police violence and discrimination towards France’s urban communities of immigrant background.

At the time, the U.N. Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination decried a “continuing practice of racial profiling” and urged France to address “structural and systemic causes of racial discrimination” in the police.

The audit office said it was unable to evaluate whether there was a practice of racial profiling, given that the collection of ethnicity-related data is largely banned in France.

However, it suggested that police oversight bodies should be “pro-active and creative” in thinking of ways to measure possible profiling, noting that the country’s highest administrative court concluded it is “widespread”.

Their count of 47 million ID checks is based on the number of times an officer consults two databases, for wanted individuals and the driving licence registry. However, the audit office notes this is incomplete due to partial records and recommends putting in place “exhaustive” documentation.

The auditors found that police training devotes little attention to how to evaluate whether an ID check is necessary, and how it should be carried out. Only 300 officers a year take courses on ID checks as part of continuous training.

They said officers often also search individuals for drugs during ID checks, even though French law states that such searches only be used for security reasons or to check for a weapon.

The audit office said it didn’t seek to evaluate the results or beneficial outcome of the 47 million ID checks in 2021.

One concrete result they noted was that 0.3% of ID checks in which the wanted list was consulted by the gendarmerie led to a wanted person being identified. The national police does not keep a similar count.

(Reporting by Layli Foroudi; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Toby Chopra)