France is for the first time launching a commission to investigate ways of measuring the country’s ethnic make-up.
The commission is being set up by President Nicolas Sarkozy’s adviser on tackling discrimination, Yazid Sabeg.
Mr Sabeg said it was "essential to measure how effective are official policies combating discrimination".
But opponents say his idea breaches the French principle of equality for all. Classifying people by race or religious beliefs is currently illegal in France.
Mr Sabeg, a businessman of Algerian descent, argued that the country’s egalitarian principle might be fine in theory, but in fact had done nothing to stop the growth of racial discrimination.
"It’s no longer possible to say that here we say we’re just one community and therefore there’s no racism or discrimination. This isn’t working any more," he told France Inter radio on Monday.
The BBC’s Hugh Schofield in Paris says that for many French, the very notion of ethnic statistics brings back dark memories of World War II, when the principle of equality was discarded in order to draw up lists of Jews for the occupying Nazis.
But, our correspondent says, people with Arab or African sounding names regularly complain of difficulties getting access to job or housing.
It is to address this issue of ethnic discrimination that the Sarkozy administration is prepared to broach what has until now been taboo in France, he adds.
"People find it hard to look the reality of this country in the face, which is that the population of the country has changed," Mr Sabeg said.
"There is an entire fringe sector that feels discriminated against because of how they look, their physical appearance or their surnames, and who feel pretty much illegitimate in the country and who suffer real social discrimination."
Mr Sabeg stressed that the authorities did not want to amass data-banks on different communities. Any such information would be given anonymously and voluntarily.
He said it was important so that those who implemented policies against discrimination could measure the size of the problem, and assess if their ideas were working.
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