The Coronavirus Crisis Exacerbated Police Abuses Among French Muslims
According to a recent report from Action Droits des Musulmans, a national legal advocacy organization, the coronavirus crisis exacerbated preexisting social, political, and economic inequalities for the Muslim minority community in France. While these findings mirror the experiences of other marginalized groups on both sides of the Atlantic, French Muslims also faced a unique form of institutionalized discrimination amid the public-health emergency: an increased incidence of police abuses. Significantly, this development is part of a broader legal landscape that contributes to this community’s stigmatization, marginalization, and alienation.
A Public-Health Emergency
On March 23, 2020, France adopted a national health emergency law on account of the coronavirus crisis. This allows for official restrictions on the freedom of movement, mandatory confinement, temporary closures of all establishments not providing essential goods and services, and price controls, among other measures. Significantly, the emergency law permitted the authorities to enforce confinement by requiring documentary evidence of official permission to go outside. Related legal violations could result in detention, monetary fines, and/or six months’ imprisonment.
According to public international law, countries are permitted to derogate or suspend specific human rights standards—such as freedom of movement, right to liberty, and freedom of religion— in times of emergency where the life of the nation is threatened. Such suspensions should be temporary and designed to restore normalcy at which point all human rights standards are to be restored.
In Lawless v. Ireland, the European Court of Human Rights found that national authorities enjoy deference in declaring public emergencies where a “crisis or emergency affects the whole population and constitutes a threat to the organized life of the community of which the State is composed.” Still, it made clear that a state can only derogate from its human rights obligations where the response is proportional, consistent, non-discriminatory, and publicized.
In the case of the coronavirus health emergency, French practices were disproportionate and discriminatory. The Action Droits des Musulmans report reveals that during the public-health emergency, authorities disproportionately policed French neighborhoods heavily populated with Muslims. Representative is Seine-Saint-Denis, one of the country’s poorest suburbs located outside of Paris, which has long been subject to racial, ethnic, and religious profiling. According to government data, officials conducted double the police stops there compared to the national average. In fact, the area was heavily policed with hundreds of thousands of such checks.
Additionally, 17 percent of those stopped in Seine-Saint-Denis were fined, a rate three times as high as the national average. For the sake of perspective, approximately 111,135 people reside in Seine-Saint-Denis whereas France has a population of approximately 66.9 million. According to my analysis, 0.001 percent of the national population—among the country’s poorest—account for a disproportionate source of state revenue.
Moreover, some abuses have evidenced police brutality, amid a transatlantic reckoning with racism. In April, for example, Mohamed Gabsi was arrested for “non-compliance with the curfew” following a police stop in Béziers. According to his sister, an officer sat on him for nine minutes while he was handcuffed. He was filmed pleading, “Help, I can’t breathe anymore, they want to kill me.” He died in police custody, and an autopsy subsequently revealed that this was from “asphyxiation” caused by “prolonged support in the cervical region.” Human Rights Watch has described the police stops discussed here as “abusive, violent, and discriminatory.”
The Broader Legal Context
France is home to Europe’s largest Muslim minority faith group, totaling approximately 5.7 million. Its laws, policies, and practices could be a precedent for the region, and beyond. In addition to grappling with social, economic, and political challenges, French Muslims have been largely securitized, criminalized, and marginalized. This is in no small part due to French colonial history but also a contemporary legal context that has normalized this outsider status. Particularly relevant here is the 2015 emergency declaration that eventually became a permanent legal fixture.
In the immediate aftermath of the 2015 Paris terrorist attack, President Francois Hollande declared a national state of emergency. It was continuously extended six times over the course of two years despite no reasonable justification and consistent human rights complaints. The law granted extraordinary powers to authorities to search homes and premises, as well as access private information on digital devices, without a judicial warrant. The police were then permitted to conduct raids with information secured from these warrantless searches. The emergency powers also permitted the house arrest of those deemed a threat to “public order and security” without appropriate judicial oversight.
While having a “limited impact” on improving security, these emergency powers created fertile ground for human rights abuses against Muslims. Indeed, the measures proved disproportionate and discriminatory, just like the official practices during the coronavirus crisis. For instance, Human Rights Watch found that during searches and house arrests, “police burst into homes, restaurants or mosques; broke people’s belongings, terrified children; and placed restrictions on people’s movements so severe that they lost income or suffered physically.” Additionally, Amnesty International determined that police subjected approximately 600 people to house arrests and conducted more than 4,000 warrantless raids. Further, UN human rights experts characterized the measures as excessive and disproportionate while urging for “prior judicial controls” such as judicial search warrants.
Eventually, in 2017, a new law made these extraordinary emergency powers permanent notwithstanding recurring complaints of human rights abuses. Among other measures, the 2017 law authorized police to conduct more stops that disproportionately affected the Muslim faith community, even amid a pandemic.
There are several lessons that can be learned from France’s experience. First, the broader legal backdrop contextualizes the experience of French Muslims during the coronavirus crisis. Indeed, the text of the 2020 health emergency is based on legislation that normalized the state’s emergency powers. In fact, it declares a "state of health emergency" akin to that declared during a threat to national security. Moreover, rather than occurring in isolation, the police stops that disproportionately affect French Muslims during the pandemic is an outgrowth of prior official abuses.
Second, the increasing marginalization of and discrimination against French Muslims undermines the nation’s security interests. According to the 2016 UN Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism, such developments (and not orthodox Muslim faith practices) may help “incite those who feel disenfranchised to embrace violent extremism as a vehicle for advancing their goals.” While human rights should not be securitized, it is difficult to ignore the national security implications of French laws, policies, and practices.
Lastly, the French Muslim coronavirus experience highlights the intersectionality of minority experiences—and not merely individual identities—on both sides of the Atlantic. Political, community, and religious leaders should take heed, accordingly.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.