French police patrol Montparnasse train station in Paris
French police patrol Montparnasse train station in Paris Reuters

Lawyers for 15 French nationals between the ages of 16 and 47 have filed a lawsuit against the state of France for alleged racial profiling.

The 15 claim they were routinely and unfairly targeted by the police for identity checks, public frisking or searches because of their skin colour, their lawyers said in a statement.

They are of Arab or African descent and include high school and college students, as well as a delivery man, a professional musician and an aide to an elected official.

The lawsuit was filed on 11 April at the Tribunal de Grande Instance de Paris.

Damages are being sought and it is now up to the authorities to decide whether to accept the complaint and proceed with an investigation.

Nadir, a 20-year-old student, told the French newspaper Le Monde about being targeted by officers while he was waiting outside a McDonald's restaurant with a friend at around 10.30pm before going out clubbing.

"One of my hands was on the table and I had my phone in the other one to answer text messages," Nadir said.

He went on to describe how he and his friend, Amel, were casually chatting about the day when a police van pulled up behind them.

Officers approached them and asked for proof of identity before inquiring whether they were carrying any illicit substances.

When the pair denied any wrongdoing, Nadir claims one of the officers said: "Stop pretending, we have seen the cannabis."

"We showed proof of our identities and tried to explain that they must have the wrong people," Nadir said, adding that they were then frisked and people began to stare at them as they became objects of curiosity.

"It was very humiliating" he said. "I am often stopped and searched, especially when I happen to be in the city centre. The police sometimes stop me up to 10 times a month."

The collective legal action, the first of its kind in a racial profiling case in France, is supported by the Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI), an international non-government organisation that works for legal reform and seeks to protect human rights.

"Ethnic profiling has emerged as a major human rights problem in France and across the European Union," said OSJI executive director James A Goldston. "To comply with the law and foster social stability, French leaders must revamp police practices for a diverse, inclusive society."

In 2009, OSJI and France's National Centre for Scientific Research published a joint study documenting more than 500 instances of police stopping people across five locations in Paris over a one-year period.

According to OSJI, the data showed that those presumed to be black were, on average, six times more likely to be stopped than those presumed to be white. Those presumed to be Arab were also eight times more likely to be stopped than those presumed to be white.

Under Article 78-2 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, French police can stop any person and request to see their identity documents without them giving any grounds for suspicion.