Border security. We see it discussed everywhere today, from its domination of international news headlines to parliamentary agendas of every level. In the face of globalisation and increasingly porous borders, many countries, of course, are fighting this trend in the name of so-called ‘national security’. Without a doubt, each country needs some element of border control to combat terrorist epidemics and the traffic of drugs. However, we only need to look at France to see how some nations are taking the patrol of their borders too far, at the expense of citizen liberty…
It’s 30th March 2018. A TGV (super-fast train) is on its way from Paris to Milan. All is running smoothly, until the Douane arrive to proceed with their security measures. For readers who don’t know, the Douane is the French Customs and Excise Agency, who live to protect French borders from contraband and any dodgy characters. They fight Drugs Trafficking, Counterfeiting, Cigarette Smuggling and Illegal Immigration. However, the way in which they behave often makes it appear as though they are fighting anybody who is not French, or, in some cases, even those who are French, the very citizens who they seek to protect.
Now, in this particular instance the Douane suspected a Nigerian man, on an innocent trip from Paris to Milan, of smuggling drugs through concealing them inside his body. As a result, they would not leave him alone until he could produce a urine sample. So, what did they do? When the train arrived in the Italian town of Bardonecchia, they led the ‘suspect’ (who, by the way, was innocent), into the base of an NGO, to perform the control measure. On the one hand, La Douane, based on a 1990 agreement, claim that they had the right to use the premises for this purpose. The NGO’s comments suggest otherwise, with witnesses saying that the armed border agents burst into the clinic, forcing a migrant into producing a urine sample, whilst intimidating doctors, mediators and lawyers at the base. Needless to say, diplomatic ties between Italy and France suffered.
This isn’t uncommon for the Douane who, for the most part, like to throw their weight around, even when in the wrong. Based on both personal experiences and reputable news headlines, such as this incident in Italy, the Douane take pride in being as rude and intimidating as they wish, until they are certain that their ‘suspects’ go away feeling as uncomfortable as possible.
Take today, for example. My boyfriend and I were en route back from Milan to Paris Charles De Gaulle Airport. For one reason or another which remains to be known, we had the joy of passing through passport control and then past our good friends La Douane, who, frankly, looked very bored. All of a sudden, we were halted, for no apparent reason. After being addressed incredibly rudely and treated like convicts (again, for no apparent reason), our passports were checked. After our passports were cleared (thanks, GB), it was obvious that the agent was trying to find a reason, any reason, to keep us just a little longer. He turned to my new Moschino bag, a birthday present I picked up in Monte Carlo last weekend. He, of course, asked where it was from. Mishearing Monaco for Morocco, his face lit up: maybe he had found some contraband! Needless to say, I abruptly clarified ‘Monte Carlo’ was the destination from where I purchased my handbag, before he reluctantly let us go.
La Douane: should they change their ways in the interest of citizen liberty?
Compared to what else I’ve heard and seen, this was relatively tame of the Douane. Worse was when I witnessed a surprise roadside inspection on a long, stuffy bus trip back from Brussels. All was running smoothly, until… you’ve guessed it: the Douane jumped out of a few unmarked law enforcement cars and made everyone get off the coach, along with all of their bags, including those stowed below the vehicle. Each and every one of us was forced to line up along the peripheries of a petrol station forecourt, passports in hand, to be interrogated one by one before we could return to the now-sacred comfort of the bus.
This was the worst case of racial profiling I have so far come across in France. Whilst, with one glance at the cover of my GB passport and confirmation that I was indeed British, I was granted permission to leave the line, others were not so lucky. This included an Argentinian couple, to my left (and about anybody else who did not look ‘French’ or, indeed, Western European). The Argentinians were interrogated and it was intense, making many of us feel as intimidated and violated as they most likely did: where are you from? Where are you going? Why did you go here? How long are you staying there? How long have you been there? Do you have any drugs? Drugs are illegal!!! Show me your identity now!
I appreciate that these are the kind of questions that need to be asked, the demands that must be made, to keep a country safe from crime and chaos. However, whilst the Douane may ask the right questions, they do it in completely the wrong way. Three common traits arise that must be changed or France risks compromising the liberty and respect of innocent travellers and its own citizens.
Firstly, whilst they may just be ‘doing their jobs’, it astounds me how rude many of the Douane are in their interactions. For me, there is a clear difference between talking to somebody quickly/efficiently and just being outright rude. I mean, imagine the chaos that would ensue, should a Douane officer actually treat his/her ‘suspect’ as a human being. We need to remember that the Douane’s primary function is to protect France and its citizens. I do not see how talking to citizens, or non-citizens, like something on the bottom of your shoe is compatible with this mission. Would it really be that difficult to be pleasant, or even neutral, rather than plain disrespectful? Perhaps the Douane should save their impoliteness for legitimate criminals, rather than dishing it out left, right and centre. In my opinion, anybody who has done no wrong has the basic liberty of being spoken to as a human being, rather than being treated as a worthless object.
Secondly, the racial profiling element that the Douane would never admit to (but clearly base their work upon) must change. Racial profiling in the realms of French law enforcement is a big problem and it will, inevitably, take a while to change this. However, the security procedures of the Douane are beyond the joke. Their lack of consistency in interrogations is laughable and blatantly unjust. Imagine a system where you pick out anybody who is ‘non-French/European looking’ (even if they are, indeed, French or European) as a potential criminal. It astonishes me how such covert (and, sometimes, overt) racism is still taking place in 2018. This not only makes the Douane look out of touch and antiquated, but also impedes the liberty of citizens based on their race and incompetent profiling carried out by supposed professionals.
Finally, the Douane must stop considering themselves as untouchable, as a force that work above and beyond any rules or regulations that may come their way. The recent Italy example which dominated headlines is a perfect demonstration of this ‘God-like’ attitude in action. Forcing your way into an NGO fails to appear as completely ‘legal’, but abusing its staff in the process? Nobody should have the right to behave like this, let alone those supposedly safeguarding citizen interests. The fact that this occurred on soil foreign to the Douane only makes matters worse.