Yesterday, I linked to an important post by Arun Kapil on identity checks in France. This started a lively discussion in the comments section, which prompted Arun to add to his original post. I'd now like to add a few comments of my own. Constitutional rights do not enforce themselves. The state's attitude is crucial. What prompted Arun's post in the first place was an apparent change in the attitude of the French state: the new interior minister announced that police will henceforth required to justify identify checks and supply receipts to people who are stopped for controls. The old minister, Claude Guéant, immediately responded that he thought this was a bad idea, because one can trust the police to distinguish between someone who "looks like a dealer" and someone who doesn't (as if everyone stopped by the police had that "look," and as if such a bald assertion would be quietly accepted by the population at large). And a cop accuses the Socialists of "angélisme" and adds that "in the station houses, police are snickering."
Now, it's quite true that abusive identity checks are common in the United States as well as in France. Everyone knows about "stop and frisk" procedures in certain neighborhoods, "special regimes" in states that border on Mexico or have large immigrant populations, anti-gang laws in cities like Los Angeles that give police broad license to do as they please, and the use of minor infractions such as a broken taillight to stop suspects guilty of "driving while black" or "driving while young" (in years long past I myself was subjected to this kind of stop on the New Jersey Turnpike for driving with long hair). And if one's taillight doesn't happen to be broken, it can always be broken after the fact.
But there is a difference between the behavior of the police in the US and the police in France. The French police seem to make a point of conducting checks in very public places: in railroad and Metro stations, on busy streets, etc. And often they go out of their way to make it clear that there is no particular reason for the check. It has always seemed to me that there was a reason for this publicity: the police wanted their action to be visible, they intended to assert that, even if they might not have the right to do what they were doing, they had the authority, since no one would or could stop them. No court would hear any complaint against them. No public official would dare chastise them. And indeed, few citizens would dare to protest, because everyone recognized the futility of doing so. In the US, these practices continue in certain neighborhoods, whose residents know, similarly, that protest from them would be futile or impractical. But outside of those areas, there are people who could and would protest if the police made a spectacle of their high-handed behavior. In France, the police have the upper hand and do not shrink from showing it.
Will that now change? Who knows? A ministerial decree can be combated on the ground in many ways. A warning has been given, but the struggle for enforcement has only just begun.