Robert Menard the mayor of Beziers a town in the south of France kicked off a very French controversy this week and it's one that rears its head every so often and never fails to provoke a row.
Essentially by profiling Muslim children in his town – which he did by the very un-scientific method of counting them as Muslim if they had a Muslim sounding French name – Menard broke a French law that has proved a conundrum for years and is the source of much criticism.
Despite being a multi-ethnic country under France's strict secularism laws, it is forbidden to keep statistics on people's religion or ethnicity.
Menard obviously knew the rules, brought in back in 1978, but he went ahead and did it anyway, even though he risks a punishment of up to five years in prison and a €300,000 fine.
Under France’s ethos of egalité all citizens are treated the same and they are not categorized into ethnic groups. It means that we don't know the exact size of the country's Muslim or Jewish populations, only that they are estimated at around five million and 500,000 respectively.
We also don't know the true size of the country's black population, which has been estimated at anything between 1 million and 1.8 million.
As Patrick Simon from France’s National institute of Demographic studies noted, this ban on statistics gathering would seem barmy to those in another multi-racial countries across the Atlantic or the English Channel.
“There are no data describing the situation of minorities in France that could be compared with those produced in the United States," he said.
Simon points out that "this state of affairs in French statistics-gathering has been the subject of major criticism for some twenty years now."
“It has gotten to the point that it has triggered a controversy of rare violence between those that would like to see statistics take into account the diversity of the population and those who denounce that such statistics might pose of ethnicizing or racializing society," he said.
In the latter group falls the socialist government.
Menard was severely scolded this week with President Hollande making it clear that he acted "against the values of the Republic".
PM Manuel Valls continued the Republican line saying “France does not make any distinction between its children.”
Justice Minister Christiane Taubira went one step further and reiterated a popular criticism that gathering ethnic data has echoes of Vichy-era France that collaborated with the Nazis.
Taubira tweeted that “the spirit of 1939 is back” with “the old demons of the Republic”, referring to the rounding up of Jews.
Some anti-discrimination groups in France are also vehemently against gathering data on ethnic grounds on the grounds they believe categorizing people by race would do more to encourage discrimination rather than tackle it.
They would point to the fact that the far-right Menard does not seem to have been motivated by ending discrimination, more by highlighting how many children in the town were of ethnic origins compared to how many were white.
However there are many who point out that France’s “colourblind” law against gathering statistics has done little to tackle rising racism and intolerance in the country and the only way to end discrimination is to identify those who are discriminated against.
“While France is ofﬁcially a society without “race,” racism and racial discriminations are as widespread as anywhere else,” argues Patrick Simon.
“No one would contest the fact that the absence of the ofﬁcial use of ethnic or racial categories fails to curb the spread of prejudice and stereotypes.”
Critics also argue that a lack of ethnic labelling has made it hard to get a sense of how minorities – particularly second-generation immigrants – are faring in French society.
Whether France does more harm or good for its minorities with its ban on data gathering on ethnic grounds, it is unlikely to change anytime soon.
The question was raised after the nationwide riots of 2005, which involved mainly youths of north African origin in the poorer suburbs of cities and was again brought to the fore after the Paris terror attacks.
President Hollande dismissed the idea of changing the law saying it would “bring nothing”.