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'Religious profiling' of Muslim children in French town causes outcry

Sylvain Thomas, AFP | File photo of Béziers mayor Robert Ménard on April 4, 2014

French prosecutors announced Tuesday they had launched an investigation into the illegal profiling of students a day after the mayor of Béziers said his town kept statistics on the religious affiliation of its schoolchildren.

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Robert Ménard, mayor of Béziers, a southern French town, said that 64.6 percent of schoolchildren in his municipality are Muslim, based on their names.

His remarks on French television on Monday sparked a national outcry.

French law forbids the collection or processing of personal data that reveals racial or ethnic origin.

“These figures, they are those of my town, we had them. Sorry to say this, but the mayor has, class by class, the names of the children,” Ménard said, adding that they reflect an "immigration problem" and that many parents of these children had less than perfect French.

“I know I don’t have the right to do it. Sorry to say it, but the first names tell us their religion. To say otherwise is to deny the evidence," he said.

Ménard was elected with the support of the National Front, France’s far-right anti-immigration party led by firebrand Marine Le Pen, who is emerging as a powerful political force in the run up to French presidential elections in 2017.

‘Shame on the mayor’

Politicians on the left and the right were quick to distance themselves from Ménard’s remarks.

"Shame on the mayor of Béziers. The Republic does not make any distinction between its children," French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, said on Twitter.

France’s Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem denounced the “profiling” of the students as illegal and "profoundly anti-Republican", while calling for the protection of the students and an immediate end to the practice.

Gerald Darmanin, deputy of the conservative opposition party Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), wrote on social media that his middle name is Moussa and asked: "If I was a child in your town, would I have been profiled?"

The town of Béziers denied there was any list of children's names or that any effort had been made to identify which were Muslim.

"The town hall of Béziers does not have, and has never had, files on its children," it said in a statement.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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