Yazid Sabeg, French commissioner for equal opportunities, on Monday launched a Committee for the Measurement of Diversity to "give France the means to understand the current state of discrimination".
The committee, chaired by demographer François Héran, will report its findings on June 30. Speaking before the 27 members of the committee at its inauguration, Sabeg welcomed this "historic opportunity", saying that France was “ready to recognize its diversity".
Critics say that the commission goes against France’s basic principles of equality. Counting people by race or religion is currently illegal in France. Mr Sabeg, who is of Algerian descent, countered this criticism, saying "establishing a means of measurement is not the key to all our ills, but it should give us the means to act".
The commission is one of French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s proposals for fighting against discrimination in the country.
"After several years of blindness and makeshift efforts that were more or less tolerated, there is now political will to better understand diversity and ethnic discrimination," said Sabeg.
He stressed that the commission would collect data on a "voluntary and self-declared" basis and said the committee should allay worries that it would be “building files” on people.
He did, however, call on committee members to "shake up preconceived notions".