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French storm the bastille over 'Sarkozy's Big Sister' database

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Imagine, if you will, an announcement by the UK Government that it is going to create a new database to track anyone over the age of 13, who has been "active in politics or the trade unions or who has a significant role in business, the media, entertainment or social or religious institutions". Let's say 20 million individuals who the authorities believe are "likely to breach public order".

This database would contain information ranging from telephone numbers and details of taxes and assets to sexual orientation.

So far so plausible. Next, imagine the newspapers - except, perhaps, the Express - wading in to condemn this assault on freedom. The Information Commissioner rails against it. Over 100,000 people sign a petition to have it dropped. Lawsuits are filed. The judges condemn it.

Trade Unions and the CBI say no. The Cabinet splits, as Des Browne, Secretary of State for Defence asks why we need it. Labour backbenchers are up in arms.

It just couldn't happen, we hear you say. At least not in the UK.

Except this is exactly what is going on right now in France. It started on 1 July, when the Commission nationale de l'informatique et des libertés (CNIL), the Office of the French Information Commissioner, forced the Government to publish a hitherto secret decree, authorising creation of a new security database.

Information to be collected via 'Edvige' - a woman's name, meaning, ironically 'sacred battle' - will include: "Civil status and occupation; physical addresses, phone numbers, email addresses; physical characteristics, photographs and behaviour; identity papers."

This latter category is of especial concern. It suggests that Edvige - dubbed "Sarkozy's Big Sister" by opponents - is intended to link directly to the newly created French 8-fingerprint biometric passport as well as to proposed biometric ID cards in future.

In vain, government spokespeople have attempted to calm debate.

They have depicted Edvige as no more than a modernised version of the files gathered by the Renseignements Généraux (RG) - the police intelligence service - who have been spying and collecting information on the activities of French citizens since their establishment by Napoleon. The RG amalgamated this year with the DST (Departement du Surveillance du Territoire), equivalent to Britain's MI5, to form a new super-agency, called the Direction Centrale du Renseignement Intérieur (Central Directorate of Internal Intelligence).

They have also pointed out that there is already a lot of personal information out there on the internet - on Facebook for instance. So government information-gathering is OK.

However, they are clearly piqued by the failure of critics to understand the purity of their intentions. Slapping down Defence Minister, Hervé Morin, who had the temerity to question the point of such extensive data-gathering, prime minister François Fillon responded rather sharply: "I don't think it is necessary to create suspicion when none exists and I had the occasion to tell him so".

Interior Minister, and law-and-order supremo Michèle Alliot-Marie, added: "It is odd that Mr Morin has not managed to find my telephone number. I would have set his mind at rest."

Softly-softly, seems to be the government stance. Having initially attempted to sneak this measure through without debate, they are now attempting to make a virtue of the public uproar. Arguing that "there is nothing to be worried about," Minister for Immigration and National Identity Brice Hortefeux claims to welcome debate: "Complaints have been filed, let them be examined."

Nonetheless, opposition remains formidable. Francois Bayrou, leader of the centrist MoDem party is against it. So too is Laurence Parisot, head of the Medef employer's union.

Last word, perhaps, to Michel Pezet, a former member of the CNIL agency, who declares: "The Edvige database has no place in a democracy... The electronic Bastille is upon us." ®

Botte-note

Reg readers who would like to sign the petition against Edvige should visit the petition site here. But be patient: it's not quite up to the traffic coming its way, and is frequently down.

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