French cabinet split over new police database

September 10, 2008

PARIS: The French Government yesterday faced an embarrassing split in its cabinet as it defended a new police surveillance system that can target suspects as young as 13, after the Defence Minister joined an increasing number of critics and voiced unease.

Prime Minister Francois Fillon declared that the Government was united behind its so-called Edvige computerised database, set up in July to collect information on all persons "likely to disrupt public order".

Defence Minister Herve Morin broke government ranks to side with a growing revolt against Edvige, an acronym for the police database, which will store personal details including opinions and the social circle and even sexual preferences of more or less anyone who interests the state.

It will also track anyone active in politics or trade unions and with a significant role in business, the media, entertainment or social or religious institutions.

Listed people will have limited rights to consult their files.

Mr Morin asked: "Is it really useful, to ensure the security of our compatriots, to centralise information concerning people because they have sought political office or joined a union?"

He was slapped down by Interior Minister Michele Alliot-Marie, who heads President Nicolas Sarkozy's drive to implement the law-and-order pledges of his election campaign last year.

"It is odd that Mr Morin has not managed to find my telephone number," Ms Alliot-Marie said. "I would have set his mind at rest."

Mr Fillon hit back at suggestions from the opposition that the new database amounted to a Big Brother state spying on its citizens.

"I believe it is not necessary to create suspicions where none exist," he said.

The Government has said it wants to step up domestic intelligence to better tackle a range of threats -- from Islamic radicals to delinquents in the poor, immigrant-heavy suburbs.

Opposition to Edvige started after the National Commission on Information Technology and Freedom, the data privacy watchdog, forced the Government to publish the secret decree that created Edvige inJuly.

This alerted rights groups to the potentially vast scope of the network.

Outrage has mounted over recent weeks. Several organisations, political parties and individuals have challenged the legality of the database before the state council, France's top administrative court.

The council is examining 13 complaints. A decision is expected in December.

Jean-Louis Kayitenkore
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