For my French readers, I should explain the headline: In American journalism, the phrase “Man bites dog” is applied to news stories which aren’t (news), a sort of inversion of “Dog bites man,” an event which would not be news. Or to put it another way: I was shocked!, shocked! to learn, on France Culture radio this morning, about a new study which confirms that if you’re Black or of Maghrebian (Arab) descent, you’re 6.8 or 7.8 times more likely, respectively, to find yourself asked for your papers here in France than if you’re white.
When one thinks about the actual term, “control (or check) d’identitie,” the implications are profound. Taking the commission literally, what’s being questioned — or if you want to be neutrel about it, verified — is whether you’re part of the national identity (although technically speaking, you could also be a foreigner in which case your papers just need to be in order). So theoretically, the implication is that if you’re not white your 7 to 8 times less likely to be French. (Even if in fact the presumption is that you’re more likely to have committed or be about to commit a crime.)
The study was conducted by researchers from the CNRS attached to the Centre des Recherches Sociologiques sur le Droit et les Institutions Penale. It was commissioned by George Soros’s Open Society Institute, based in the United States, where race-based criteria is known simply as ‘profiling.’ The French study was conducted between October 2007 and February 2008 in two Paris locations, the Gare du Nord and Chatelet. And there’s the first flaw in the study, in at least two respects; 1) People of color are more represented in these two places than they are elsewhere; 2) In the Gare du Nord, which has in fact been a magnet for, if not ‘gangs,’ at least rival youth groups from the suburbs more likely to be constituted by people of African or Maghrebian origin, the police scrutiny may actually be justified.
The uber-conclusion from the study — which clocked 525 controls out of 37,000 which traversed the two places during the periods of observation — is that, ‘the police read the signs of the person more attentively than his comportment.” (The two guests appearing on France Culture, Fabien Joburd and Rene Levy, were not always clearly identified, which is why I’m not attributing the remark to one or the other.) Those indicators were not confined to skin color; the researchers also looked at the sex, age, type of sack and, most intriguingly, clothing, in particular paying attention to whether someone attired a la hip-hop was more likely to be questioned. And indeed, the study found that a white person in hip-hop attire was more likely to be stopped than a black person with no particular wardrobe signifier.
Profiling is not a scourge particular to France. But here’s where the French exception comes in: Elsewhere in Europe (and, I can confirm, the States as well), “Circulate!” (or “Disperse!”) is the premiere contact the police are likely to have with the populace. In France, it’s “Your papers!”