Police Covid-19 checks in France: What is allowed?

Police and gendarmerie in France have the power to challenge people outside the home during this period of Covid-19 confinement - but how far does that power go? We answer some key questions.

1 April 2020
Police are not permitted to make further judgements on what are "essential goods" as the government has already made that decree
By Connexion journalist

More than 359,000 fines have been issued in total for breach of confinement rules in France in the past two weeks, minister for the interior Christophe Castaner has said. More than 5.8 million checks have been recorded since March 17.

The minister reminded people that the imminent start to spring school holidays in Zone C (Créteil, Montpellier, Paris, Toulouse, Versailles) should not be seen as an opportunity for people to “go on holiday”, and that the confinement rules will remain in place throughout.

Fines are now at €135 per first infraction, rising to €200 for a second infraction within 15 days, rising to €450 if it is not paid on time. If four breaches are recorded in a 30-day period, the punishment can rise to a fine of €3,750 and six months in prison.

The confinement period remains in place, as the total number of deaths from Covid-19 is now at 3,523 (499 in the past 24 hours), said director general of health Jérôme Salomon in the latest update (Tuesday March 31).

But questions have been asked about the extent of police and gendarmerie power, and whether some have been allegedly abusing their authority.

We translate some questions answered by news source France Inter, who obtained answers from the special online chat set up with the Police Nationale during this time.

Are police and gendarmerie allowed to search my boot / bag / car?

Police can check that you are complying with the confinement rules, such as only shopping for essential items, and can legitimately ask you to show them your shopping to check this, for example.

However, they do not have the right to inspect your belongings themselves. When searching your bag for example, they must ask you to open it for them.

Is it up to the police to say what is, or is not, a “necessary” purchase?

No. The government has already decreed which shops are necessary and may remain open, and which are not, and have therefore been closed. So it is not for the police to make further judgements.

The Police Nationale answered: “The [detailed] checking of foodstuffs and [deciding what are] basic necessities is subjective.

It is enough to simply show your form, with the option ticked to show you are going out temporarily to buy essential goods.”

Public freedom office l'Observatoire Parisien des Libertés Publiques said that police should not make judgements on whether goods are essential or not, where doubt exists.

It said: “A fine based on a [perceived] lack of necessity of the goods can be appealed, due to a lack of foreseeability of the offence.”

  

Are they allowed to ask me why I am going to the pharmacy or to the doctor?

As with supermarket goods, police are allowed to ask you what you have bought at the pharmacy, to “check if your purchases are aligned with [what is written on] your form”.

If you are going to the doctor for an unavoidable reason, and for something that cannot be done from home or via online consultation, you must tick the correct “health” box on your form.

However, you are never required to explain the reason why you are visiting the doctor, as this is covered by medical confidentiality.

Are the police allowed to accompany me home to check that I go? 

Yes. There is no rule saying that they cannot.

What do I do if I want to complain or appeal a fine or police behaviour?

You are legally allowed to contest a fine if you believe it was unfairly or incorrectly given. 

You can either write to “request an exoneration” from the officier du ministère public (OMP; public prosecutor's office), or start the appeal process online on the website of the Agence Nationale de Traitement Automatisé des Infractions (ANTAI; National Agency for Automated Offence Processing), here.

The appeal must be made within 45 days of the fine being given. After this, the amount owed will rise, but you will then have another 30 days to contest it and submit a complaint.

This website is normally intended to help you contest a traffic or parking fine, but it can also be used to appeal confinement fines.

The website is available in English (and several other languages including Spanish, Dutch, and German) by clicking the “change language” drop down menu or flag symbol on the website menu.

You will be asked to fill in an online form with the details of your fine, and click the submit button to open your case. You will later be invited to make the case that the fine was given in error.

Read more: Confinement in France: Can I contest an unfair fine?

If you wish to challenge a fine, l'Observatoire Parisien des Libertés Publiques said that you are advised to find a witness to the incident if possible; and to not pay the amount, as doing so would make it appear that you have accepted the fine.

It said that it had noted “a rise” in cases, but that it was too early to tell if police abuse of the rules was becoming “systematic”.

The police have admitted that errors can happen, but they warned people to respect the confinement rules and the spirit in which they are given.

The police said: “Someone passing by ten times to buy something, even if it is a necessary item, is a lot.”

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