PARIS — The avowed ideals of a free, open and tolerant Europe are under assault as never before, with a surge in police spot checks and house raids ushering in what some are calling a new era of racial profiling.
In France, the home of liberté, égalité, fraternité, Muslims are especially alarmed, warning of a new climate of fear in the wake of the November attacks that killed 130 people in Paris. Suspicion is also deepening over foreign asylum seekers and terrorist threats in nations including Germany and Denmark, heightening police actions targeting minorities and racial profiling at nightclubs and public swimming pools.
Minority activists have denounced alleged racial profiling in Europe for years. But never, they say, has it been so frequent and obvious. Under an ongoing state of emergency in France, for instance, police now have broad powers to detain suspects and conduct raids without court orders. So far, authorities have staged 3,200 raids and put almost 400 people under house arrest.
Yet those raids have resulted in only five terrorism-related investigations while leaving a lot of broken doors in Muslim homes. In a nation where the state is said to be so color-blind that not even census-takers ask about race, counterterrorism operations are also leading to false confinements.
A French judge in late January found that, after nine weeks of house arrest, small-business owner Halim Abdelmalek had been wrongly detained by overzealous authorities. The 33-year-old Muslim was ultimately freed but not before his detention, he said, nearly ruined his motorbike repair service and forced him to fire two employees.
“I said nothing to my children. I told them, ‘Daddy has hurt his back, and that’s why I’ve been home,’ ” whispered Abdelmalek in his living room in the Paris suburbs as his two young sons peered out from behind a door in the hallway. “I am scared. We are no longer in a state of law here. We are in a state of profiling. We are all suspects now.”
Activists are describing a higher level of profiling directed at a variety of nonwhites, including South Asians and blacks, sparking a debate with echoes of the one in the United States over the treatment of ethnic minorities by law enforcement. But in Europe, such profiling appears chiefly aimed at “Muslim looking” peoples.
Technically, racial profiling is forbidden under European Union law, and records of stop-and-searches are not routinely kept in many nations, including France and Germany. But from Barcelona to Warsaw, Munich to Paris, it has become commonplace to see ethnic minorities held up at police checkpoints as white Europeans and tourists whisk through unmolested.
After a series of gigs, French comedian Yassine Belattar hopped a train from Brussels to Paris last month with his business partner. They disembarked, he said, but didn’t get far before the police brusquely stopped and searched the copper-skinned Belattar as his white associate walked on by.
“I was like: ‘What? He’s traveling with me! Why don’t you search him too?’ But they just waved through everyone white,” said Belattar, 33. “They opened my suitcases and took out my clothes one by one. I felt nervous and humiliated.”
At Berlin’s Tegel Airport this month, two German police officers combed through a crowd at baggage claim. They demanded passports from half a dozen passengers, all of whom were darker skinned.
“Why?” said one middle-aged man from India wearing a colorful wool cap. “Because of this, eh?” he said, rubbing the skin on his arm. “If I looked like them? Nothing.”
European officials strongly deny that they are conducting racial profiling. But privately, several security officials conceded that given certain shared ethnic characteristics of many terrorism suspects and migrants, they are far less likely to stop and search, say, a French grandmother or a well-dressed German executive. But race is not the main factor, they insist, also citing behavior and dress when deciding whom to single out.
“We have increasingly been confronted with accusations of racism,” said Ivo Priebe, spokesman for the German Federal Police. “I reject this accusation. We carry out controls on the basis of current police information, not based on skin color.”
In Germany, where 1.1 million migrants arrived last year and thousands more are coming every week, the issue is not just terrorism. A rising number of sexual harassment and assault allegations against asylum seekers has led nightclubs, bars and public pools to ban young men who have a certain look.
In the German city of Münster, the activist group Anti-Deportation Alliance Münster documented a police checkpoint during the annual carnival celebration on Feb. 8 at which seven people were stopped and searched. All of them, the group said, were of “non-German” appearance. When questioned, police told them they had been selected “by pure chance.”
Others warn that fears related to terrorism and migrants are making racial profiling more socially acceptable.
In Denmark, at least one nightclub has adopted a policy to weed out refugees that requires guests to speak Danish, German or English, with other establishments reportedly considering the same. In Munich, a group of four young men — two white and two black — conducted an unscientific study in November, testing the entry policies of discos on two different nights. On one night, all but one of 20 clubs allowed the white Germans in, while 14 refused entry to the black men. Another night, the white Germans gained entry everywhere, while the black Germans were barred from 14 out of 25 establishments.
“We were also verbally and physically attacked,” said Boubacar Bah, an immigrant to Germany from Senegal who took part in the study. “When I tried to walk past the bouncer at one place, he pushed me away. We expected that he would say, ‘You’re not getting in,’ but not to be pushed. It’s hard not to lose control, if you’re deprived of your human dignity in such a way.”
In France, authorities have defended the 3,200 raids made under state-of-emergency laws. While there may have been only five terrorism investigations opened, they say, the raids uncovered significant caches of weapons, drugs and other evidence of illegal activity.
But civil liberties groups say the targeting of Muslims is based on flimsy evidence. Abdelmalek, for instance, was placed under house arrest shortly after the November attacks in Paris. Among other charges, authorities cited a months-old allegation that he had been caught taking photographs of the home of a cartoonist from Charlie Hebdo, the satirical newspaper targeted by homegrown extremists in January 2015.
In fact, Abdelmalek says, he was simply talking to his wife on the phone at a nearby intersection. The two of them were meeting, he said, to take one of their sons to his mother’s house. She happens to live a few doors down from the cartoonist.
After he appealed his house arrest, a judge ruled in his favor last month. The French state must pay him $1,635, a sum he said does not come close to covering the hit to his business from nine weeks of house arrest.
“It’s not the money, though,” he said. “It’s the dignity. You cannot put a price on that.”
Virgile Demoustier in Paris and Stephanie Kirchner in Berlin contributed to this report.