Paris—French rights groups protested Monday after the government authorised for the first time a study on ethnic integration based on so-called “racial profiling”—a statistical technique which opponents say is against the law.
The education ministry study, which is part of a Europe-wide initiative, will require investigators to identify 500 people with a parent born in Morocco or Turkey—even if the subjects themselves have French nationality.
The study is meant to cast light on possible links between immigrant communities and problems at school, but opponents says it is a breach of a 1978 law which makes it an offence “to compile or study personal information which directly or indirectly reveal racial or ethnic origins”.
“Whatever precautions are taken, this type of initiative merely sustains prejudices that exist towards certain populations—and offers no guarantee of results in the treatment of academic failure,” the Movement Against Racism (MRAP) said in a statement.
Unlike other countries in Europe, France has banned studies based on racial, religious or ethnic origin on the grounds that they undermine the principle of equal citizenship.
As a result there are no figures for example on the numbers of people of immigrant origin in French prisons or on unemployment lists, though anecdotally both statistics are believed to be disproportionately high.
Recently the National Information and Freedoms Commission (CNIL)—which vets demographic studies—refused to allow the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France (CRIF) to carry out an investigation into the state of Jewish opinion in the country.
However there is growing pressure from the government—whose Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy is a champion of “positive discrimination” to favour ethnic minorities—to move away from the blanket ban on “profiling”.
Some academics also favour loosening the rules, arguing that after last year’s rioting in high-immigration suburbs an accurate picture of France’s ethnic mix is increasingly urgent.
But Samuel Thomas of SOS-Racisme said: “Studies based on blood-lines may be interesting in order to analyse various types of discrimination … but we have to be on guard against abuses of interpretation.
“There is a temptation to lay everything at the door of ethnic origin and ignore social factors, family and working environment.”
Under the French study, demographers in Paris and Strasbourg will identify 250 people who have at least one parent born on Morocco, 250 with at least one parent born in Turkey and 250 with both parents born in France.
The subject families will then be questioned on a range of issues—including income level, professional status, linguistic and cultural habits, religion, housing and experience of discrimination.
Because of the lack of existing personal data, the subjects will be chosen at random from the telephone book—with demographers seeking out names that look Moroccan or Turkish.