By Layli Foroudi
EPINAY-SOUS-SENART, France (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 police officer.
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 Reuters.
"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 individual's 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 fines.
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, Assam's 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 town's 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 Strategie's 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 country's 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 shouldn't 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 don't even know they're being fined at the time of the alleged infraction, she said.
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 it's not possible to prove discrimination, she said, without data showing that police treat people of varying ethnicities differently. Such data doesn't 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 person's 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 town's historic quarter is a zone developed in the 1960s, where some people who migrated from France's former African colonies settled.
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-Senart's 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 show.
Dumas, appointed municipal police chief in 2017 by the town's 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 town's 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 woods.
"Who am I disturbing?" he said. "Am I waking up the squirrels?"
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 infractions.
The Essonne police department didn't respond to questions about the fines received by Assam and Bouchouf.
Epinay-sous-Senart's 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 mayor's office in Epinay-sous-Senart didn't respond to requests for data for this period.
Damien Allouch, the town's 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 didn't 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.
Assam's 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 wasn't 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 prosecutor's office. That prompted a review by the prosecutor's office, which found that police had issued fines to Assam remotely, that person said.
The local public prosecutor's office said it couldn't comment on Assam's 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, Assam's 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 state's rights watchdog, the Defenseur des Droits, about the town police's 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 doesn't 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," she said.
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," he said.
(Additional reporting by M. B. Bell in New York; Editing by Cassell Bryan-Low, Christian Lowe and Janet Roberts.)