EPINAY-SOUS-SENART, France, Dec 6 (Reuters) - Mohamed
Assam went to buy groceries at a supermarket close to his home
near Paris one April afternoon in 2020. By the time he returned,
he had incurred more than 900 euros in fines for nine different
infractions without once, he said, coming into contact with a
The 27-year-old from the Paris suburb of Epinay-sous-Senart
said he learned of the fines about a week later, when he
received notifications in the post.His alleged offences, which
he is contesting, include violating COVID-19 lockdown rules and
lacking correct headlights on his quad bike, according to the
notices he received from an interior ministry agency reviewed by
"It was a surprise, a bad surprise," said Assam. He now owes
thousands of euros in total for fines accrued since 2019,
including late payment fees, according to Assam and his lawyer.
French President Emmanuel Macron facing criticism from rivals
who accuse him of being soft on drug dealers and other offenders
has implemented a string of policies aimed at curbing urban
crime. Those include greater authority for police to issue fines
a power police have seized upon.
Nationwide, the number of non-traffic related fines has
grown by more than six times to 1.54 million last year from
240,000 in 2018, according to the interior ministry agency for
fines. In 2020, when the country underwent multiple COVID-19
lockdowns, the number surpassed 2 million.
Proponents say the fines reduce the burden on the justice
system by keeping minor infractions out of court. Critics say
the penalties allow police to dispense sanctions at their own
discretion, without proper accountability. Some lawyers and
rights advocates say this power has resulted in police targeting
poorer people and those from ethnic minority backgrounds,
leaving some people saddled with hefty debts.
French laws strictly limit the collection of data about an
individuals race or ethnicity, which makes it difficult to
determine exactly how the fines impact ethnic minority groups,
but the census does collect some figures on immigrants, based on
place of birth and nationality. A Reuters review of
census-related and some fine-related police data from across
France reveals that police have fined people at higher rates in
areas with the heaviest percentages of immigrants.
There is systemic discrimination, said Alice Achache, a
lawyer representing some Paris residents who are challenging
President Macron has previously said there is no systemic
racism in the French police. His office declined to comment for
this report, as did the national police. The interior ministry
did not respond to questions. Police in other countries such as
the United States and Britain have faced accusations of
over-policing and over-sanctioning of minority communities.
In Epinay-sous-Senart, Assams town, a Reuters review of
data from more than two years of police reports recording
incidents involving at least one fine found more than 80% of
those incidents occurred in two adjacent neighborhoods where
residents say many ethnic minority families live. Of the 478
police reports that recorded fines from April 2018 to July 2020,
403 were from that part of town, according to the local police
data, which Reuters obtained via a freedom of information
request. The vast majority of the people fined had Arab or
African surnames, the data showed.
More than one-third of Epinay-sous-Senart residents ages 25
to 54 are of non-European immigrant background, as are more than
half of the towns children, according to 2017 census data
compiled by France Strategie, a government think tank.
The heavy concentration of fines in parts of the town where
immigrants live fits a pattern that has played out across
France, according to the Reuters review. Police issued 58
COVID-related fines per 1,000 population in the five Paris
districts with the highest concentration of residents with
non-European backgrounds, based on France Strategies figures.
That is about 40% higher than the rate of other areas, where
police issued almost 42 fines per 1,000 people.
Nationwide, the rate of pandemic-related fines in areas
where official statistics show a high concentration of
immigrants was 54% higher than in other areas between mid March
and mid May 2020 during the countrys first nationwide lockdown.
Police also sometimes issue fines remotely and fine the same
people repeatedly, including on occasion multiple times within
minutes, according to fine recipients and defense lawyers. The
burden of these remote and repeat fines falls heavily on
minorities, these people say, adding to their suspicion police
are targeting ethnic groups.
Issuing fines remotely is a breach of police procedures for
non-traffic infractions, according to several legal specialists.
Philippe Astruc, the public prosecutor in Rennes, runs the
office responsible for processing fines that individuals
nationwide dispute. He said police shouldnt issue a fine
without stopping the rule breaker, except in the case of certain
road-related rule breaches.
Despite the rules, some lawyers representing fine recipients
say remote fining occurs. Achache, the Paris lawyer, said that
police know the names of individuals because they regularly
conduct identity checks and recipients sometimes dont even know
theyre being fined at the time of the alleged infraction, she
Proving bias in fining practices is difficult, some scholars
say. Other factors that could explain the geographical disparity
in fine rates, sociologists said, include greater concentration
of police patrols or higher crime rates in certain areas.
Aline Daillere, a sociologist researching policing at Paris
Saclay University, said the Reuters analysis shows certain
categories of the population are very frequently fined, mostly
young men from poorer neighborhoods who are or are perceived
to be minorities. One possible explanation, she said, is that
police are targeting minority populations. But its not possible
to prove discrimination, she said, without data showing that
police treat people of varying ethnicities differently. Such
data doesnt exist.
Augustin Dumas, the municipal police chief of
Epinay-sous-Senart until the summer of 2020, denied targeting a
particular area or section of the population, saying police
responded to complaints by inhabitants. If someone is doing
something wrong, you need to act, said Dumas, now an elected
official in a nearby town.
Macron, who came to power five years ago on a centrist
platform and was re-elected this year, has toughened his stance
on law and order amid stiff competition from the right. Rights
advocates say his government has chipped away at civil liberties
while giving greater powers to authorities, such as the ability
to close mosques without trial.
The expanded police powers include the right to issue
on-the-spot fines. Several new finable offences have been added
since 2020, including drug use and loitering in building
hallways. The government is seeking to add more police fines as
part of a broader security bill. Lawmakers are due to vote on
the legislation this month.
The proposed expansion of fines is aimed at providing
efficiency and simplicity, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin
told the upper house of parliament in October. During another
debate in the lower house in November, Darmanin denied racial
profiling by police in issuing fines.
The new fines the government is proposing, which include
penalties for offences like graffiti and stealing petrol, would
be marked on a persons criminal record, unlike fines for minor
infractions such as making noise, littering or breaking lockdown
restrictions. Either way, what troubles some critics is the lack
of judicial oversight.
Justice is being taken out of the courtroom and conducted on
the streets, without safeguards such as right to a defense, said
Daillere, the sociologist. If we don't go in front of a judge,
what stops a police officer from giving out a sanction even if
there isn't an infraction"
NEIGHBORHOOD IN THE CROSSHAIRS
Born in France to parents from Morocco, Assam said police
have stereotyped and preconceived ideas about him and his
friends of immigrant origin. He said police frequently stop
them, which leaves him feeling less than equal to his fellow
citizens. We are regular people like everyone else, we are
French, we are proud of being French, said Assam, over coffee
in a neighborhood cafe early this year.
Epinay-sous-Senart sits around 30 kilometers southeast of
central Paris with a population of just over 12,000. To the east
of the towns historic quarter is a zone developed in the 1960s,
where some people who migrated from Frances former African
Assam lives in this newer part of town in an area known as
Les Cineastes, a series of modern apartment blocks served by a
cafe and a few shops. It was in this and an adjacent
neighborhood where police issued the vast majority of fines over
the more than two-year period Reuters reviewed.
Epinay-sous-Senarts rate of violent and non-violent crime
is lower than the average for other towns in the same department
and the greater Paris region, interior ministry figures for 2021
Dumas, appointed municipal police chief in 2017 by the
towns then center-right mayor, told Reuters his goal was to
tackle anti-social behavior and drug dealing.
Some people were fined multiple times, Reuters found. The
478 police reports Reuters reviewed involved a total of 185
people. About one-fifth of the recipients were fined in three or
more incidents, according to the police data Reuters obtained.
Reuters also examined the contents of the police reports, which
revealed some people received multiple fines for the same
incident. The reports also showed many fines were issued under
local decrees banning outdoor gatherings and allowing police to
stop people in specified areas.
Hassan Bouchouf received fines on more than two dozen
occasions, according to the towns fine data. The 37-year-old
factory worker told Reuters the police would either tell him to
move on or fine him whenever they would see him and his friends
socializing outside, even when they had moved to the nearby
Who am I disturbing he said. Am I waking up the
Bouchouf owes the treasury more than 20,000 euros for fines
received between 2017 and 2020, according to a treasury summary
dated Aug. 9.
Dumas made no apology for issuing repeat fines. He said
people who were fined repeatedly had committed repeated
The Essonne police department didnt respond to questions
about the fines received by Assam and Bouchouf.
Epinay-sous-Senarts police have been less active in issuing
fines since the arrival of a new mayor and police chief in the
summer of 2020, according to the mayor, two police officers and
more than a dozen residents interviewed by Reuters. The mayors
office in Epinay-sous-Senart didnt respond to requests for data
for this period.
Damien Allouch, the towns center-left mayor elected in June
2020, told Reuters that police continue to issue fines where
necessary but said anti-social behavior can be addressed through
other means. Sometimes discussion is enough, he said.
Allouch didnt respond to questions about the earlier police
data Reuters obtained from the municipality.
Georges Pujals, who served as mayor until 2020 and appointed
Dumas, denied there had been discrimination by police. He said
that during lockdown, police were applying COVID-related rules
set by the government and that a core group of people who
received multiple fines were well known to police. He added that
municipal police officers carry out their law enforcement duties
under the supervision of the public prosecutor.
Assams fines led to an even deeper tangle with the police.
After learning of the April 2020 fines, Assam verbally
confronted Dumas on the street later that same month, according
to both men and a witness. Dumas says Assam threatened him;
Assam says he merely insulted Dumas. Both men told Reuters there
was no physical violence. The following morning, police arrested
Assam at his house, according to Assam.
In November 2020, the Court of Evry found Assam guilty of
violence and threats against an official, according to a court
document. Assam is appealing a six-month suspended prison
sentence, said his lawyer, Clara Gandin, and his appeal is due
to be heard in December. Gandin said that police harassed young
people in the neighborhood and that she intends to argue that
this provocation justifies a lighter sentence.
Separately, Assam has contested the nine fines from his
supermarket trip, plus four others from April and May 2020, on
various grounds, including that he wasnt stopped by officers in
all cases and that police reports contained insufficient detail,
Gandin said. In late November, a police tribunal canceled two of
the fines, both COVID-19 related, according to Gandin. He
continues to challenge the other 11 fines, which include several
related to the quad bike he drove on his supermarket trip.
Reuters found at least 45 people in Epinay-sous-Senart and
elsewhere in the greater Paris region who say they were fined
without any contact with a police officer, according to
recipients and their lawyers. The fines were issued for
antisocial behavior, such as making noise, and lockdown breaches
between 2017 and 2021, according to the treasury summaries and
fine notices shared with Reuters or the lawyers. Almost all of
the individuals were immigrants or descendants of immigrants
based on their names.
Assam complained about remote fines during a police
interview following his April 2020 arrest, according to him and
a person close to the local public prosecutors office. That
prompted a review by the prosecutors office, which found that
police had issued fines to Assam remotely, that person said.
The local public prosecutors office said it couldnt
comment on Assams case. But it told Reuters that after
reviewing a 2020 complaint about remote fines, the local
prosecutor sent mayors a letter to remind police of the rules.
The letter, reviewed by Reuters, said that lockdown-related
fines can only be issued after direct contact with the person.
This confirms that the prosecutor is perfectly aware that
there has been remote fining and the fines are not legal
because they cannot be issued without physical contact, Gandin,
Assams lawyer, told Reuters.
The criticism over police fines comes amid broader
allegations of discrimination by police. One flash point has
been police identity checks.
In a significant ruling, the Paris Court of Appeal in 2021
found discrimination was behind police identity checks of three
high school students - French nationals of Moroccan, Malian and
Comorian origin - at a Paris train station in 2017. Each
individual received 1,500 euros in compensation, plus legal
costs, the court said at the time.
Last year, Assam and more than 30 other Epinay-sous-Senart
residents filed a complaint with the French states rights
watchdog, the Defenseur des Droits, about the town polices
approach to fines during the pandemic.
Remote fining constitutes systemic discrimination by
police towards young men of North African or Subsaharan African
origin, said the April 2021 submission, prepared by Gandin and
other lawyers. It alleges police engaged in remote and
repetitive fining, which it described as police harassment.
Complaints about police fines have mounted since then. In
March, about 60 residents from three Paris neighborhoods filed a
joint complaint to the Defenseur des Droits with similar
allegations. The watchdog is investigating about 10 complaints
alleging improper police fines, mostly from Paris, according to
a person familiar with the matter. The organization can make
policy recommendations and help challenge rights violations but
doesnt have the power to cancel court or administrative
decisions, a watchdog spokesperson said.
Claire Hedon, head of the Defenseur des Droits, declined to
comment on the probes. But she said the problem with fines is
that they can be issued arbitrarily and are difficult to
challenge. The principle of justice is to be able to appeal,
Debts accrued as a result of fines can continue to weigh
heavily on individuals, lawyers say.
After a period of unemployment, Assam recently said he found
a job in sales, speaking in early November. He said he continued
to receive letters about his court proceedings as well as
notices from the authorities saying they will send bailiffs or
seize money he owes from his bank account. The warnings leave
him stressed, he said.
"Letters come to the house, I don't even open them anymore,"
(Additional reporting by M. B. Pell in New York; Editing by
Cassell Bryan-Low, Christian Lowe and Janet Roberts.)