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No, oversight of the French police does not infringe a Council of Europe document

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CheckNews, France

3 May 2019, Updated: 3 May 2019

No, oversight of the French police does not infringe a Council of Europe documentCC-BY 2.0 Flickr/Kristoffer Trolle

A labor union for the French police believes that the IGPN, the French body charged with supervising law enforcement, infringes a text of the Council of Europe (CoE). But the CoE document is legally non-binding and does not contradict the substance of the various types of oversight existing in France.

Here is the question you asked us: “Is it true that the IGPN [Inspection Générale de la Police Nationale] has had no legal basis for investigating the police since 2014, according to the European Code of Police Ethics signed in 2001?”

You refer to comments made by Alexandre Langlois, secretary general of France’s police labor union VIGI, during the program Bercoff dans tous ses états on Sud Radio. Asked about France’s current wave of protests and the situation with law enforcement, here is what he said on 23 April:

“The IGPN is the Inspection Générale de la Police Nationale. We regularly remind people [that it] has not had a legal basis in France since 2014. France having signed a European treaty which says that the police does not have the right to investigate the police.”

André Bercoff: “In France the IGPN no longer has a legal basis according to European regulation?”

Alexandre Langlois: “According to the European Code of Police Ethics, which was signed by France in 2001 and is applicable in all signatory countries from the moment a new ethical code is taken up, this being 2014 in France. In it, it is written in black and white, the police may not investigate the police”.

He then clarified that “it is not that the police may not investigate the police but rather that it must be done by external bodies”.

The Inspection Générale de la Police Nationale (IGPN) has three main missions with respect to the police: it conducts audits and unannounced inspections; it carries out research and makes recommendations aiming to improve operating methods; and it monitors the police’s respect of an ethics code. In this context it can conduct investigations at the instigation of administrative or judicial authorities.

A non-binding legal recommendation

The text referred to by Alexandre Langlois is a recommendation made on 19 September 2001 by the Council of Europe’s committee of ministers, concerning the European Code of Police Ethics. The CoE is independent of the European Union. It is an intergovernmental organization which comprises 47 countries including France. Its decision-making instance is the “committee of ministers”, composed of member states’ foreign ministers.

What does this text contain? It “recommends that the governments of member states be guided in their internal legislation, practice and codes of conduct of the police by the principles set out in the text of the European Code of Police Ethics, appended to the present recommendation, with a view to their progressive implementation, and to give the widest possible circulation to this text”.

The first observation to make, as did the Council of Europe to CheckNews, is that this recommendation is not legally binding. It “invites member states of the Council of Europe to implement by legislation and practice this code of ethics. It remains a recommendation and not an obligation”. This is confirmed by France’s Défenseur des Droits (an ombudsman with a mandate which includes institutional ethics): “This is neither a treaty nor a directive. The aim of this code is to provide the Council of Europe’s member states with a set of principles and guidelines to assist the activities of the police”.

The text does not say that the IGPN has no legal basis

A second observation concerns substance. The provisions of this European Police Ethics Code are to be found in an appendix to the recommendation. In paragraph VI, entitled “Accountability and control of the police”, article 59 stipulates: “The police shall be accountable to the state, the citizens and their representatives. They shall be subject to efficient external control.” This is the phrasing that Alexandre Langlois used at the end of his remarks.

But despite what is implied in Alexandre Langlois’s comments, nowhere does the code say that internal control is illegal. The presentation of motives says that “The police must be accountable (via the intermediary of central, regional or local bodies) to the state, from which it derives its power and its mission. All member states have thus established bodies tasked with supervising the police”. The European Police Ethics Code clarifies that “there exist several ways of ensuring that the police is accountable to the public. This accountability can be direct, or indirect via the intermediary of bodies which represent the public”. In detailing these means of accountability the code points out that state control of the police must also be shared between legislative, executive and judicial branches of power, and that “effective and impartial [procedures of] recourse against the police” must be put in place.

Complementary oversight

Is the IGPN’s supervisory role authorized and in conformity with this mention of “effective external control”? To this question the Défenseur des Droits reponds: “The IGPN is a police internal control body which is not composed of operational forces, in accordance with this code.”

But the Défenseur des Droits adds that “External control is carried out, in France’s case, by the Défenseur des Droits, as well as by legal authorities, the courts.”

The IGPN does indeed conduct investigations which can result in disciplinary sanctions, and judicial investigations, under the authority of a judge.

As for the Défenseur des Droits, he also plays a role ensuring good conduct among public-safety professionals, as defined by the code of ethics of the police and gendarmerie, in force since 1 January 2014. This code states that “the national police and the national gendarmerie are subject to the control of the Défenseur des Droits”.

Translated by Harry Bowden, VoxEurop

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