Pierre PIAZZA, Laurent LANIEL


A slightly different version of this paper was published in Colin J. Bennett and David Lyon (eds) (2008), Playing the Identity Card: Surveillance, security and identification in global perspective, Routledge, London & New York



This paper examines several aspects of the new and controversial French biometric ID card project called INES (Secure Electronic National Identity), disclosed by the government in early 2005 and temporarily suspended a few months later. Firstly, the eventful history of carding in France is reviewed. Secondly, in order to elicit major similarities and differences between INES and past projects, the INES project itself is examined and attention is paid to its design, legitimization by the government, and decision-making process, which for the first time involved all citizens in a democratic debate. Finally, the paper turns to the various forms of resistance to INES, either institutional or stemming from the media and civil society. These resistances have shed light on the various limitations of the INES project by criticizing the inappropriateness of its design, the unconvincing nature of governmental justifications and the potential dangers of biometrics for civil liberties and the French conception of citizens’ identity.


Thanks to historical and sociological research, the material aspects of the “manufacturing” of individual identities by the French national authorities are well-known at present[1]. Indeed, building on Michel Foucault’s initial reflection that the state aspires to prescribe behaviors conforming with the order that it is endeavoring to impose through governmental techniques which strengthen its grip on individual behaviors (1975, 2004), research has shown that the rise of carding[2] techniques has done much to improve our understanding of the various logics at play -- control[3], distinction[4], codification (Bourdieu 1993) and stigmatization[5] -- in the construction and consolidation of the modern state in connection with the emergence of the individual in Western society (Elias 1991). Such logics are manifested by the constant improvement of several types of bureaucratic knowledge and know-how in carding matters. They inform us of the changing nature of the concerns (law enforcement, social policy[6], health policy[7], etc.), strategies (ranging from official orders to softer, more symbolic forms of power imposition), and justification discourses through which state authorities have increased their prerogatives significantly by becoming involved ever more extensively in the definition and material shaping of people’s identity. At present, these state logics undeniably are undergoing a major shift due to the introduction of biometrics in identity documents. Indeed, the generalized move toward biometrization of ID “papers” results in the emergence of new issues, including the hardening of the control systems applied to international travelers (Rosecrance, Badie, Hassner 2002: 56 et passim), the definition of radically new criteria of dangerousness (Bigo 2004)[8], the transformation of the relations of the state with private security operators (Ocqueteau 2004), and the protection, at a global level, of the information stored in ever more extensive computer databases (Ceyhan 2007: 46).

By contrast, although part and parcel of the power politics that lie at the core of identity assignment processes, resistance to such state undertakings remain mostly obscure. There are two main reasons for this lack of knowledge. Firstly, archive-based research does not always allow adequate analysis of the perceptions, practices and circumventing strategies of the people on whom identification techniques were applied[9]. Secondly, many of the issues surrounding recent biometric identification methods have yet to be studied in detail[10]. Yet it is indispensable to examine resistance closely since each carding process should be viewed as a special type of power struggle between actors that have the power to materially define, codify and fix an official identity and others who, being the targets of such identity assignment, are led to dispute its validity periodically. The forms that these protests take are all-important since they strongly influence the shape of carding systems, the specific “carding path” followed by each state and the type of power politics that emerge between state authorities and the individuals targeted by identification enterprises (Poirmeur 2006). Resistances may have different motives and be rooted in politics, law, ethics or culture. And they may be expressed in a large variety of ways, from individual circumvention or diversion strategies aimed at avoiding state impositions to collective protest movements using sophisticated types of rhetoric and action.  However, it is always crucial to understand their historical genesis since the configuration of past power politics strongly impacts present-day power struggles.

This paper is an effort to start filling the gaps in research by examining one of the main systems that the French government is presently striving to implement in order to better identify citizens—the biometric identity card project, INES (Secured Electronic National Identity). While this requires reviewing the eventful history of carding in France in order to elicit the project’s novel features, due attention must also be paid to the forms of resistance that it has triggered, so as to better grasp how they have contributed to shaping the project’s own history. All in all, the INES project is a fine illustration of the fact that carding, far from being a powerful instrument that a “Big Brother” state, bent on opaque and ferocious designs, forces upon an obeying, helpless and amorphous mass of citizens, is better analyzed as the complex outcome of a struggle between political power and the social body that it wishes to rule.




In a little more than a century, France went from a situation where no specific piece of paper had the “monopoly of self-denomination” (Offerlé 1993: 49) to the institution of the first “Identity Card of the French” (carte d’identité de Franćais) in one department only in 1921, then to the establishment by the Vichy regime of another “Identity Card of the French” in 1940, which failed to be distributed everywhere in France, and finally to the “National Identity Card” (carte nationale d’identité) in 1955, which would be computerized gradually starting in 1987. This expansion of carding has been underpinned by a double logic—materializing a belonging common to citizens recognized as equals; and discriminating against some French people viewed as suspects or enemies of the nation.


The First Card

Starting in 1870, the development of bertillonnage and dactyloscopy (Kaluszynski 1987 ; Piazza 2000, 2005b ; About 2004) made it possible for the authorities to think methodically about the role of description, photographs and fingerprints as well as the connection that must exist between these identifiers and the information kept and classified in state records. At first, these techniques were used to identify with more certainty some categories of the population viewed as dangerous or marginal—recidivist offenders, nomads (Asseo 2002; Piazza 2002), and foreigners (Noiriel 1991). However, the entire French population would soon be subjected to carding. By a circular of September 12, 1921, Police Prefect Robert Leullier instituted the first “Identity Card of the French”, which citizens residing in Paris and the Seine Department could request. This card became the sole and uniform ID paper issued to French citizens by the Paris police prefecture and a reference document to which all other ID papers for citizens had to conform.

Leullier thought that the reform was a step forward since it remedied the diversity of existing identification practices for nationals, who until then could use a wide range of documents issued by myriad authorities, none of which was more important than the others, as proof of their identity[11]. Leullier added that the card was established “in the public’s own interest” (Valbelle 1921), since it would make it unnecessary to have two witnesses to prove one’s identity – as was required for administrative procedures at that time. But if this formality was to be done away with, the card had to offer strong guarantees as to its authenticity. Hence the Paris police resorted to the Bertillon system. On each card, the individual’s description had to be drafted with utmost precision and the dimensions of the photograph were carefully set in order to facilitate the owner’s identification. In addition, the card bore the fingerprint of its owner. The prefecture would file all the forms filled by those requesting the card, thereby setting up a “centralized record [that] will make it possible to check whether card number X was indeed issued to individual Y, with a view to avoiding substitutions” (Leullier 1921).

Some of the press supported the card, depicting it as indispensable to put an end to the problems created by the need for witnesses (La République franćaise 1921; La Presse 1921a). Some journalists even wanted to out-Herod Herod. For instance, newspaper La Presse (1921b) explained that the fingerprint could be useful to identify possible criminals, but Leullier denied that this was his intention.

Yet the card also attracted suspicion. Discontent focused on fingerprinting, which assimilated citizens with criminals. Both the right and the left adamantly rejected the notion that citizens could be identified thanks to techniques used by the Criminal Record Office against offenders. The communist daily L’Humanité (1921) equated the new card to “some sort of criminal record”, while the conservative L’Intransigeant (1921) compared it with a Bertillon card that would soon become compulsory for all.

While the problem was all but ignored when the interior ministry (henceforth: the Interior) had imposed an identity card on foreign residents of France in 1917, public opinion discovered in 1921 that Leullier’s ID card threatened individual freedom. Leullier would eventually bow to the protest by making “his” card non-compulsory. The first Identity Card of the French, which was invented to rationalize administrative identification procedures, thereby failed to fulfill its objective since other documents could still prove citizens’ identity.



In the context of the suspension of democracy and enhanced technocratization of power, the Vichy regime (1940-1944) launched its own ID project, which entailed, for the first time ever, a close partnership between the Interior and state statistics services.

The law establishing an “Identity Card of the French” compulsory for all citizens aged 16 and above was published on October 27, 1940 (J.O. 1940: 5740-5741). Issuance of the card started in twelve departments in 1943. Vichy thereby hoped to preserve the illusion of national unity (while France was occupied and its territory divided up into several zones)[12] and presented the card as proof of its determination to modernize a state it said had been perverted by the previous regime (Le Cri du peuple 1940). In fact, although the Vichy carding drive was indeed “novel”, it cashed in on the knowledge and know-how accumulated during the Third Republic.

With a view to forestalling problems arising from the wide range of documents by which the French could still prove who they were, the model of the Vichy compulsory card was unique, its dimensions, the type of paper used and the location of the rubrics it contained were precisely defined by a multitude of Interior-issued documents—decrees, circulars, orders. For practical reasons, the mayors were summoned to help deliver the card to citizens by drafting requests and recording them, but under the supervision of prefectures, which were the only institutions allowed to manufacture the card. Likewise, by subjecting the different steps of the distribution process to prefectorial control, Vichy endeavored to standardize state identification practices and to ensure that they were carried out in accordance with the uniform rules designed by the central authority.

To make the card more secure, the police resorted once more to Bertillon’s inventions and to fingerprinting. The Interior wanted to set up a central record with a copy of each card actually issued, but eventually this turned out to be impossible. In addition, the ministry called on statistics services which invented, from the data of the registers of births, marriages and deaths, a 13-digit identification number that made it possible to accurately characterize individuals during their entire lifetime[13]. That number was embossed on each card, written down on each request form filed by the prefectures and recorded in a central repertory established by the statistics services. The Interior thought that this was an efficient means to identify each requester unequivocally, carry out identity checks rapidly, detect attempts by one individual to obtain several cards, and identify counterfeit cards. 

The symbol of a new regime embodied in a strong state committed to the emergence of a new order, the Vichy card also served for the more down-to-earth task of “cleansing” the national community, which Vichy planned to “regenerate” by excluding the “metics” (métŹques) that had “debased” it. The procedures for issuing the cards (starting in 1943) proved crucial for the segregation policy launched by Vichy as early as 1940. For instance, the meticulous checks implemented by the prefectures allowed the Interior to ascertain how each requester had acquired their French nationality, and then to write this information down on the card. The stamping of the word “Jew” on identity cards served to materialize a type of sub-citizenship. This measure, which was demanded by the German authorities and the Vichy institutions specializing in hunting Jews, was taken special care of by the Interior. Furthermore, in 1942 the ministry started distribution of customs-made punching machines intended to impede any tampering with the “Jew” mention on the cards (Piazza 2004: 224-226). In an effort to “steer the evolution of the race by reasoned legislative action on the individuals conforming it” (CAEF), the statistics services even imagined a system to distinguish between “good” and “bad” French people by means of an Individual Descriptive Book (carnet signalétique individuel) that would have made it possible to record myriad personal data (education, physical abilities, professional skills, morality, etc.) about its holders.

However, several obstacles would come in the way of the rationalized carding of all French people by the Vichy police. The sheer scope of the identification work to be carried out, and the division of the country into several zones complicating the transmission of official documents, made it difficult to distribute the card throughout France. Then there were material problems such as the lack of paper and chemicals needed to manufacture the card and the photographs. The carding project also attracted the hostility of many citizens. According to Interior reports mentioning “psychological resistance”, the card caused concern because of the amount of data it contained, and because it was perceived as yet another obligation forced upon the people and as “a type of pre-mobilization” orchestrated by the Germans. Finally, the acts of resistance of some civil servants and, especially after the institution of the Compulsory Work Service (STO) in 1943, the gradual professionalization and expansion (?) of the counterfeiting of papers by Resistance movements would also frustrate governmental carding ambitions (NoguŹres 1984; Wieviorka 1995).


After World War II

At Liberation, any type of distinction between citizens was banned. As a result, the cards bearing the word “Jew” were withdrawn and the rubric on the method of acquisition of French nationality was deleted. On October 22nd, 1955 a decree by the interior ministry instituted a “National Identity Card”, and explained that this was done “in a perfectly liberal spirit” (Le Parisien 1955).

This new card was based on a single model for the whole of France and issued by the prefectures only. It was optional and entailed the creation of not one central record but several departmental records. In addition, the Interior removed from the card any element that might have lent it a repressive nature. The mention “distinguishing marks” and a frontal photograph replaced the detailed description and the photograph of the right profile that reminded of criminal identification procedures on the Vichy card. The 1955 decree required a print of the left index finger on both the card and the request form, but the Interior eventually waived this requirement in 1974 arguing that it was “undeniably a constraint for the public” (Intérieur 1974). While the Interior officially distanced itself from Vichy with the National Identity Card, one of its unofficial objectives was the control of the French Moslems of Algeria. A “confidential” circular by the Interior on December 7, 1955 instituted a specific form of prefectorial control on these citizens on grounds that possible suspects among them could try to take on false identities[14].

It was not until the 1970s and an increase in the fear of crime that significant change emerged—the computerization of the National Identity Card, which gave rise to a major national debate and even became, for the first time, a bone of contention between the main political parties. The proposed reform allowed conservatives to show their determination to fight some threats: crime, illegal immigration and terrorism. By opposing the reform, the left could claim to be defending individual freedom against generalized police surveillance. As a result, the computerized card was the subject of diametrically opposed policies for years. The first model was made official on July 31st, 1980 by a decree of the interior minister of a conservative government (J.O. 1980: 1953). In October 1981 – that is, just four months after the election as president of France of Franćois Mitterand, a socialist – an order by the new interior minister stopped distribution of the card (J.O. 1981: 9065). After the conservative victory at the legislative election of March 1986, a new “Secured National Identity Card” was issued by the Chirac government in the Hauts-de-Seine Department only as of April 1988. However, following the re-election of Mitterand in May 1988, generalization of the card would be “frozen”, and then would start again in the aftermath of the conservatives’ landslide at the March 1993 legislative elections.

This new card, which is still in use in 2007 but remains optional, has several specific features. Physical production is restricted to two centers only in order to guarantee total standardization of its shape and contents. Several techniques are used to impede imitations and tampering (security paper, UV-sensitive elements, lamination, etc.). In addition to physically “tamper-proofing” the card, the Interior has set up a “National Management Record” that is systematically consulted through a computer terminal in order to ensure that no-one obtains more than one card. Finally, the ministry has “hardened” attribution requirements in an effort to enhance the security of the issuing phases, but at the detriment of the principle of equality between citizens. The obligation to show two recent proofs of place of residence to issuing authorities in order to obtain the card has intensified the marginalization of homeless citizens (Bresson 1995). Another measure – considering every request as a first request – affects other categories of citizens, including those born in France of foreign or naturalized parents and those married to a foreigner. For several thousands of such people, the authorities have demanded a certificate of nationality in addition to the birth certificate with filiations required for all. This practice is strongly resented by these citizens, indignant to be subjected to “routine state xenophobia” (Maschino 2002) and treated as second-rate citizens.

The French police carding system has become significantly more sophisticated in recent years. Yet a major fault remains—the weakness of the controls applied “upstream” of the issuance of the card. In spite of everything, it is still fairly easy to obtain an authentic secured card by providing birth documents that do not reflect the real identity of the requester.




The INES project comes after the Titre fondateur project launched by socialist Interior Minister Daniel Vaillant in 2000-2001. The Titre fondateur, which was included in the Pluri-annual Action Plan for the Prefectures 2002-2004, attracted much criticism (CNIL 2004: 82-84)[15].

The INES project was mentioned for the first time in September 2003 by Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy in his closing address to the fourth Worldwide Forum on e-Democracy at Issy-les-Moulineaux near Paris. Sarkozy presented the project as “one of the priorities of the Interior” and pledged that it would be operational by 2006. After pilot-experiments were carried out in Gironde Department, the project was taken up by Sarkozy’s successor at the Interior, Dominique de Villepin, who in January 2005 requested the Forum des droits sur l’Internet (FDI 2005)[16] to organize a national debate so that citizens’ opinions could be taken into account before the authorities would design the final version of INES. That version was officially approved by Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin at the inter-ministerial meeting that adopted the INES Program on April 11, 2005. The Program was then to become a bill to be subjected to the approval of both the National Commission on Computers and Liberties (CNIL)[17] and the State Council[18] before it would be debated at Parliament and voted into law (Foucart 2005a).


The nature of the new carding system

INES is truly a “revolutionary” system for identifying nationals. Indeed, with a cost estimated at Ř 205 million a year (Ř 25 million a year more than the current system), the project involves charging citizens for a biometric card (the state stopped charging for ID cards in 1998) that would become compulsory within five years of initial issuing. The optional nature of the French ID card was decided under the Third Republic, maintained at Liberation and never questioned by any government thereafter.

As far as the centralization of the information on card owners is concerned, INES is a significant step forward, although centralization has always been a major objective of efficiency-driven French police forces. For the first time, the INES card is to be connected to several central records of nominative data managed by the authorities, namely:

A register of births, deaths and marriages, which the Interior intends to set up from the National Register of Identification of Natural Persons (RNIPP, which contains names, surnames, filiations, addresses, etc.) managed by the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (INSEE);

- A record containing the fingerprints of card owners;

- A record containing the digitalized facial photographs of card owners; and

- A record of passport owners[19].

Also novel is the fact that the biometric data contained in the card is to be saved in a microchip. According to the Interior’s “The INES Program” (2005), the data held in the chip is to be distributed among five distinct “blocks”, unconnected to one another:

- An “identity block”, containing information including the two fingerprints and the digitalized photograph of the card’s owner, which may be accessed by duly authorized officials only;

- An “authentication block”, proving the card’s authenticity;

- A “certified identification block”, allowing owners to access public and private e-procedures;

- An “electronic signature block”, allowing owners to electronically sign authentic documents (e-administration); and

- A “personal portfolio block”, allowing owners to save additional data on the card (a driver’s license number, for instance).

Finally, the biometric data saved in the Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chip included in the INES card may be accessed remotely without contact during automated control procedures[20].


Legitimization discourse

As far as identity assignment is concerned, the INES project is in many respects an undeniable break from the past. Conversely, the discursive strategies implemented by the authorities in order to justify the need for INES are clearly inherited from past rhetorical efforts aimed at convincing citizens to agree with a document intended first and foremost to meet the needs of the state (Piazza 2004: 141-145).

The authorities systematically stress the usefulness of the biometric ID card. Far from a dangerous police tool, it is described as just a “convenient instrument” thanks to which citizens will find it easy to prove their identity and their French nationality in a world defined by increasingly complex social relations. In this view, INES is supposed to allow citizens to prove their uniqueness in an undisputable way, and to bring them the satisfaction of it being recognized at all times while eliminating the disadvantages of identity usurpation. At certain periods of the past, some supported the idea of turning the ID card into a fully fledged “certificate of respectability.”[21] This notion is not altogether absent in the INES project. Since owners will have the option of saving many personal details in the “portfolio block” of their cards’ chips, and since it will be possible to use the card for authentication purposes on both governmental and commercial websites, what filters through is the notion that the biometric card will make it easy for everyone to prove their own “transparency”, to demonstrate that they have nothing to hide about themselves and that their way of life is in no way reproachable.

In addition to selling the advantages of INES for the citizens themselves, the state also presents the card as indispensable to improve the efficiency of law enforcement. In this case, the legitimization of the INES project is in line with arguments deployed in the 1970s, when the authorities used to link the need to computerize the National Identity Card with the fight against illegal immigration and terrorism. The new biometric card is also said to make it impossible for foreigners to falsely claim French nationality. This, in turn, is supposed to help fight against state benefits fraud, tax evasion, etc., which cost “several hundred million euro”, according to Interior guess-estimates (2005). As the prime minister himself insisted on his office’s website, “this is a major security problem for our territory and our fellow citizens, and an especially important issue in the fight against irregular immigration” (Villepin). Additionally, because the biometric card addresses identity fraud the authorities present it as an anti-terrorist weapon. The Interior has thus claimed that identity fraud “is associated with all types of serious crime, from terrorism to drug trafficking and the trade in human beings” (Canepa 2005). Such fraud is depicted as a major threat to state security since terrorists “take advantage of the holes in our present systems in order to evade checks” (Villepin 2005b).

However, while the present government has been content with recycling justifications that were formalized years ago, it has connected them to a new type of argument in an effort to convince the public that the INES project makes sense—the need to abide by international obligations, which, it is alleged, force France to implement a biometric carding system.


The decision-making process

Before INES, no consultation of the public about national carding systems had ever been organized by French authorities. Carding systems had always been established and ruled by decrees, orders, and circulars issued by the Interior. Parliament began to deal with the issue at a late stage and only through rare and brief exchanges between deputies at the occasion of debates on the different laws governing ID checks that were voted in the 1980s. In carding matters, democratic debates were always initiated and carried out by the press, which either stigmatized the authoritarian nature of carding procedures for French nationals, or conversely presented them as absolute security necessities. When the first plans for computerizing the national ID card emerged in the late 1970s, these arguments gradually overlapped with the right/left political divide. At the same period, new players began to participate in the heated debates triggered by computerization plans, including the CNIL, trade unions, and human rights NGOs.

Against this background, Interior Minister Villepin’s decision to ask the FDI to organize a national public consultation on the INES project is literally unheard of in France. Between February 1st and June 7, 2005, the quasi-governmental organization set up an online forum where every specific detail of INES was discussed. With a total of 3,060 messages posted by participants, the Forum was a great success. Moreover, the six live debates orchestrated in the cities of Bordeaux, Lille, Lyon, Marseille, Paris, and Rennes between March 8 and June 16, 2005, were attended by a total of 600 people. Finally, the FDI commissioned an opinion poll on INES which involved a 950-people representative sample of the French population. These initiatives undeniably have contributed to improve public knowledge about INES while providing an opportunity for many people to express their views, including civil servants, elected officials, experts, NGO leaders, and common citizens.

Another initiative also has helped raise awareness of INES among the general public. Of its own authority, the CNIL decided to hold a series of hearings on the INES project in order to be better prepared when the Interior eventually would request its opinion officially. The hearings took place between February and May 2005 and enabled the CNIL to consult with people from many different walks of life (scholars, police officers, magistrates, and activists) and all testimonies were posted online (CNIL 2005). Finally, for the first time in France, legislators set up an information-gathering commission dealing specifically and exclusively with ID issues. The “Information Commission of the Senate Commission on Legislation on the New Generation of Identity Documents and Documentary Fraud” headed by Senators Charles Guéné and Jean-René Lecerf of the majority UMP party has started thinking seriously about the use of biometric ID documents and especially the INES project. The commission’s report published in June 2005 (Lecerf 2005) is a significant contribution to the democratic debate on INES.




The INES project has attracted harsh criticism since its inception. This explains why Nicolas Sarkozy, who was appointed interior minister for the second time at that period, decided to temporarily suspend the implementation of INES. Here is how Sarkozy (2005) justified the freeze:

“This project has evolved a great deal in the last months. It is going to have a profound, durable impact on the daily lives of French people. While decisions at the European level force us to implement a biometric passport in the short term, it is not the case as far as the electronic ID card is concerned. Therefore, I do not wish to launch into it without taking the time needed to ponder all of its consequences. The point is not to back-pedal on some necessary changes but to correctly ascertain what direction we want to take, under what conditions and at what price.”


The opposition: Varied forms, multiple actors

The FDI-organized debates provided project detractors with ample opportunity for expression. The FDI final report (2005) has reflected the scope of public condemnation, which was also largely commented on in the main newspapers—Le Monde: “Criticism rains on biometric ID project” (Foucart 2005c); Libération: “FDI tells Interior of French fears” (Tourancheau 2005b); Le Figaro: “Interior embarrassed by biometrics” (Tabet & Leclerc 2005); L’Humanité: “Electronic ID: try again!” (Mouloud 2005).

The rise of other forms of opposition also appears to have influenced Sarkozy’s decision. INES was vehemently denounced by defenders of individual liberties. For instance, a “Group for the withdrawal of the INES project” was set up in the spring of 2005. This partnership involving five non-governmental organizations and trade unions launched a website – http://www.ines.sgdg.org intended to raise public awareness of what it called “the dangers of INES. The website contains a detailed description of the French biometric ID card project as well as information on a range of initiatives from several European governments aiming to include biometric data in travel and identity documents. In May 2005 the Group launched a petition against INES, mocking it as “Inepte, Nocif, Effrayant, Scélérat” (literally: Inept, Harmful, Scary, Nefarious). As of February 8, 2007, 6,871 individuals and 71 associations and groups had signed this petition. Additionally, prominent individuals in the Group have explained why they oppose INES at Senate and CNIL hearings.

“PiŹces et main d’oeuvre” (PMO)[22], a group of individual critics of “freedom destroying” CC-TV, nanotechnologies and biometrics also has manifested its hostility to INES. PMO is said to have orchestrated the June 2005 “Libertys” hoax (Foucart 2005b; Le Hir & Cabret 2005). A fake four-page leaflet bearing the logo of the IsŹre General Council (governing assembly of the IsŹre Department) was slipped in thousands of mailboxes in Grenoble. To better denounce INES, the well-imitated, official-looking leaflet sang the praises of an imaginary new biometric “life card” and urged IsŹre dwellers to request it at once. Meanwhile, INES was the target of a biting denunciation campaign at the hands of several key internet activists like Samizdat and Indymedia, while others – e.g. Collectif contre la biométrie[23], Brigades des Clowns[24] – stigmatized the biometric card as “law-and-order oriented”.

Yet resistance to INES is not restricted to activists. Opposition also comes from institutional players. In June 2005, four Communist deputies and senators issued a statement against INES, while the Socialist Party denounced it on its website[25]. The CNIL, although it has not been officially consulted, has also been reluctant about INES. Its vice-chairman, Franćois Giquel, voiced doubts on the real intentions behind the interior ministry’s biometric ID plan by asking: “Does the INES project consist in identifying owners of a document or does it consist in identifying unknown individuals from a criminal police perspective?” (Tourancheau 2005a). CNIL Chairman Alex Türk (2005) made it a point to stress that if the CNIL were called to give an opinion on INES it would do so “in terms of proportionality” by taking into account four criteria: centralization of nominative data; individuals’ traceability; presence of a security imperative; and individual consent. This amounts to a thinly-veiled warning that the CNIL resents a project that it deems is not in sync with its own doctrine on citizen identification. This doctrine had already been made quite clear to the Interior when INES was initially floated in 2003:


In its deliberation of October 21st, 1986 the Commission gave a favorable opinion on the recording of individuals’ fingerprints when they request an ID card, but it did so after duly noting that no manual, mechanical or automated centralized record of fingerprints would be created at national level, and that the fingerprints stored in the departmental records would not be digitalized. Furthermore, the Commission specified its doctrine during its deliberation of April 24, 2003 on the immigration bill by stating that it is warranted to use biometric systems in order to make sure of a person’s identity as long as the biometric datum is kept on a medium reserved exclusively for the use of the person concerned, by contrast, due to the characteristics of the selected physical element of identification [i.e. digitalized fingerprints] and of the possible uses to which the databases that could thereby be created may lend themselves, the storage and processing of fingerprint data must be justified by compelling security or public order necessities. In this respect, it must be stressed that the initial decree of October 22nd, 1955 states that “an ID card certifying the identity of its owner” is created but does not mention any public order purpose […] As a result, the reasons given [by the Interior] do not appear to be sufficient in view of the potential dangers inherent to the creation of a national database containing the fingerprints of all ID cards owners. There could be ground already for the Commission to express its reservations on principle to the interior ministry by stating again what it stated in 1986 and especially in 2003. In any case, the purposes of the storage of the fingerprints and therefore of the checking of both the card and the data stored in the microchip that it contains should be clearly specified, since the creation of centralized databases interconnected by an identifier represents a fundamental change in how identity has been thought of in France until now.

(CNIL 2003)


Another form of institutional opposition has focused on the design of the INES project itself. The interunion committee of INSEE and all major national trade-unions – CGT, CFDT, CGT-FO, SUD and CFTC – have rejected a measure by which INSEE would be required to certify, through the RNIPP, the birth and marriages documents shown by citizens requesting the biometric card[26]. According to the unions, this type of activity does not fall within INSEE’s competence and could lead to it becoming a “police auxiliary”. Meanwhile, the Association of the Mayors of France (AMF) has condemned the Interior’s proposal of issuing the biometric card in a few hundred French towns only. AMF has said that, if implemented, this option would force many citizens to travel long distances to obtain the card and therefore would lead to new territorial inequalities within France. AMF also has expressed concern about the financial cost of the INES project for the town councils since the central government would pay only for the technical, not labor, expenditures required to issue the new card (Crouzillacq 2005).


New Opposition Discourses

In addition to these opponents who condemn specific aspects of INES, others have found fault more generally with the efficiency of the biometric technology selected by the authorities. Supported by expert opinion[27], many have questioned the infallibility of the high-tech card, concluding that as far as the security of identification procedures is concerned, the “benefits” that may result from implementing INES would be minor compared to the considerable financial cost of the system.

Moreover, the methods used by the Interior to promote its project were criticized. The ministry was suspected of turning the national consultation organized by the FDI into a decoy essentially intended to legitimize pre-existing governmental options. Many of the participants in the FDI internet debate complained that the INES project was approved by Prime Minister Raffarin in April 2005 while the online consultation supposed to guide governmental choices was scheduled to end in June.

Some of the arguments used to sell INES as a security imperative were denounced as unconvincing. For instance, the Interior argued that more compelling individual identification procedures were indispensable to curb documentary fraud. Yet the scope of such fraud has never been assessed seriously in France. The only statistics ever quoted by the Interior in this respect applied to foreign countries, like the US and the UK, where official citizen identification systems differ widely from those existing in France[28]. The ministry also failed to convince doubters when it insisted that the biometric ID card is an important anti-terrorist tool. The FDI final report thus asked: “Will such a system really make it possible to identify first-time terrorists? How would it keep someone determined to commit a terrorist attack from obtaining an ID card quite legally?” (FDI 2005: 6). Finally, the contention that France had to conform to supranational norms on identification was often perceived as a “clever” attempt to justify a project liable to attract much resistance. While Interior Minister Villepin declared that the biometric ID card would be issued before the end of 2006 “in accordance with our European commitments and as agreed with our American friends” (J.O. 2005), INES detractors have repeated ceaselessly that the E.U. Council Regulation of December 13, 2004 on the introduction of biometrics into passports had nothing to do with national ID cards—Article 1 (3) of the regulation reads:


This Regulation applies to passports and travel documents issued by Member States. It does not apply to identity cards issued by Member States to their nationals or to temporary passports and travel documents having a validity of 12 months or less.

(E.U. 2004: L 385/2)


Additionally, INES opponents have argued that the standards of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO)[29] on biometric identification only made it compulsory to use a digitalized photograph, not fingerprints, in identity documents. For instance, Meryem Marzouki (2005) of IRIS has criticized the official legitimization discourse of INES in the following terms:


To present as an obligation forced upon the country the implementation of international or regional political decisions to which France has contributed, sometimes as a leading force, amounts to what some non-governmental organizations have termed “political laundering.”


However, most of the blame put on INES ultimately has revolved around a major fear: the colonization of the intimate sphere by governmental power, which is accused of developing increasingly intrusive and tyrannical methods of intervention leading to an intensification of social control. In this respect, the fears triggered by INES are in keeping with those that exacerbated in 1921, when the Identity Card of the French project was denounced as an extension of police records to honest citizens, considerably restricting individual freedom, and again in the 1980s by opponents to the computerization of the National Identity Card.

However, in the case of INES, the concerns traditionally articulated along the lines of “security imperatives vs. protection of the private sphere” (Guerrier 2004: 21-23) have shifted. New fears have emerged because of the technologies now available, of the nature of usable identifiers – which “fix” individual identity more than ever before –, and of the fact that identification drives have become increasingly internationalized. These fears are not only about centralized, potentially inter-connectable, mega-records of biometric data, but above all about the rise of a logic of individual traceability[30] potentially leading to a significant expansion of the control prerogatives assigned to police organizations while radically threatening the anonymity of public space and right to oblivion.



At the time of writing (July 2007), the future of the INES project is shrouded in mystery [this is still the case in September 2011]. No official statement about it has been made since its suspension in June 2005, nor since the presidential election of May 2007. Unofficial “rumors” about the French biometric ID card system have filtered through from the Interior, but have been contradictory. At first, that is, before the presidential election, it was said that the INES project was being redesigned into a new version that would be more likely to be adopted. Yet since the election of Nicolas Sarkozy as president, a well-informed source has indicated that the project would be presented again to parliament in its original form (i.e. not redesigned) in 2008.

Whatever the case, it may be deduced that the INES project is not a priority for the new government, for if it was Sarkozy would most probably have taken advantage of his post-electoral “state of grace” period[31] and majority in parliament to see it voted into law quickly. Instead, it seems that the new president prefers to use the “state of grace” to promote other, more sweeping, and even structural, measures like reforming universities, social security, the tax system, labor laws, and criminal justice.

It may be also speculated that the new leader perceives INES as strategically risky. Indeed, the biometric ID card could be an issue around which a presently extremely weak and divided left-wing opposition may unite, just when Sarkozy is endeavoring to divide it further by co-opting some of its prominent members into his new government. As was mentioned earlier, the Left has been opposed to the carding projects promoted by the Conservatives since the 1970s. Pushing INES through parliament at this time could jeopardize the support that the new president is striving to muster up across the board for “his” reforms. An additional factor is that the legislative elections of June 2007 were not as favorable as the new president expected (his UMP party lost seats to the socialists, although the UMP retains the majority at the national assembly). It would nonetheless be very surprising if the INES project did not resurface in 2008 or later. Indeed although it is not crucial, INES nonetheless seems to fit in well with the tough stance against crime and terrorism that Sarkozy has taken. And of course, there is considerable industrial potential in the biometric ID card.



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AMF: Association des Maires de France (Association of the Mayors of France)

CAC: Centre des Archives Contemporaines (Center for Contemporary Archives)

CAEF: Centre des archives économiques et financiŹres (Center for Economic and Financial Archives)

CFDT: Confédération Franćaise Démocratique du Travail (Democratic French Labor Con-federation)

CFTC: Confédération Franćaise des Travailleurs Chrétiens (French Confederation of Christian Workers)

CGT: Confédération Générale du Travail (General Labor Confederation)

CGT-FO: Confédération Générale du Travail-Force OuvriŹre (General Labor Confederation-Workers’ Force)

CNIL: Commission Nationale Informatique et Libertés (National Commission on Computers and Liberties)

FDI: Forum des Droits sur l’Internet (Internet Rights Forum)

INES: Identité Nationale Électronique Sécurisée (Secured Electronic National Identity)

INSEE: Institut National de la Statistique et des Études Économiques (National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies)

IRIS: Imaginons un Réseau Internet Solidaire (Let’s Imagine a Solidarity-based Internet Network)

J.O.: Journal Officiel (Official Gazette)

RNIPP: Registre National d’Identification des Personnes Physiques (National Register of Identification of Physical Persons)

STO: Service du Travail Obligatoire (Compulsory Work Service)

SUD: Solidaires, Unitaires, Démocratiques (Interdependent, Unitarian, Democratic -- labor union)

UMP: Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (Union for a People’s Movement -- political party)



[1] Kaluszynski (1981), Noiriel (1988), BerliŹre & Levy (2001), Denis (2003), GenŹses (1993, 2004), Piazza (2005a), EHESS (2004), Université Toulouse 1 (2005), Spire (2005), Crettiez & Piazza (2006).

[2] We use the term “carding” to refer to the process by which the identity of individuals is codified and written down on official papers carried by individuals, these papers being connected to records held by state authorities.

[3] On the gradual transition from a police surveillance activity relying on face-to-face recognition procedures to the indirect, « remote », methods for controlling individuals that emerged with the development of the nation-state, see Noiriel (2005).

[4] In order to be “imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign” (Anderson 1999 : 6), the national community must take on concrete dimensions, which the state helps bring into effective and visible existence. This is achieved especially through carding procedures, which by establishing a clear distinction between citizens and foreigners facilitate the embedding in daily social practice of a nation-statal logic underpinned by inclusion and exclusion imperatives, as most papers in this volume illustrate.

[5] See especially Goffman’s Stigma (1975), which touches on the question of the connection between “personal identity” and “identity documents”.

[6] Breckenridge’s paper on the South African HANIS system in this volume is an illustration.

[7] See Maas’s paper on the European Health Insurance Card in this volume.

[8] Also see Muller’s paper on the biometric state in this volume.

[9] This is not to say that such analysis is downright impossible; see especially Denis (2004) and the papers published in a recent issue of the journal Politix (2006) on “Impostures”.

[10] On the reactions triggered by the use of biometrics in schools, see Craipeau, Dubey & Guchet (2003).

[11] Identity, good character, residence, and birth certificates; family record books; military cards; hunting licenses; cards issued by railways; etc.

[12] Nonetheless, Vichy often had to deal with the occupant, which deemed the card to be necessary to preserve order and keep the population under police surveillance.

[13] This is the forerunner of the Social Security number presently used in France.

[14] This circular may be consulted at the Centre des archives contemporaines (CAC, at Fontainebleau) under reference number 860 580 art.7.

[15] With the Titre fondateur, the Interior hoped to rationalise bureaucratic practices so that citizens may obtain safer ID and travel documents through a single and simplified procedure. In addition, each French citizen was to be ascribed a single identification number (printed on both ID and travel documents) allowing them to carry out administrative procedures on the internet, since the number was to serve “as both a signature for online exchanges with the state and a personal access key to administrative data” (Fumaroli 2002).

[16] The Internet Rights Forum is a quasi-governmental organisation set up by the prime minister in December 2000 in order to organise debates on the legal and social issues arising from the internet and new technologies.

[17] Founded by the law of January 6, 1978, the CNIL is an independent administrative authority protecting privacy and personal data.

[18] The Conseil d’État (or State Council) is France’s highest administrative court; its main role is to give opinions on the legality of governmental bills, decrees and ordinances.

[19] In the mid-term, the Interior would like to merge procedures for obtaining the biometric ID card and the biometric passport.

[20] On use of RFID technology for identification purposes, see Stanton, Chango & Owens in this volume.

[21] By writing owners’ criminal records down on the cards (Ceccaldi 1917), or by describing the state of owners military obligations (Bayle 1922: 29).

[22] See http://pmo.erreur404.org/PMOtotale.htm

[23] In November 2005, some members of this group destroyed biometric terminals in a high-school near Paris. They were sentenced by court to suspended prison and a heavy fine on February 17, 2006.

[24] Inspired from the British movement CIRCA (Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army), several “clown brigades” have emerged in France since 2005.

[25] http://www.parti-socialiste.fr/tic/spip_tic/rubrique.php3 ?id_rubrique=41.

[26] See the leaflet issued on June 7, 2005 on: http://cgtinsee.free.fr/dossiers/libertes/ines/Tract%20Intersyndical%20INES%20INSEE%207%20juin%202005.pdf).

[27] Especially Philippe Wolf (2003), head of training at the Central Direction of Information Systems Security of the prime minister’s office, who exposed the numerous weaknesses of biometric technology in his paper “On Biometric Authentication”.

[28] On the difficulty to assess fraud, see Ceyhan (2005: 7-8).

[29] On ICAO, see Stanton, Chango & Owens in this volume.

[30] On traceability, see e.g. Torny (1999), Bonditti (2005). Many critics have stressed that inclusion of a contact-free chip within the INES card would allow to read chip data from a remote location without the consent or knowledge of the card carrier.

[31] In France, “l’état de grace” is the name given to the period following an election, especially a presidential election, during which the newly elected official enjoys exceptional popularity ratings. It may last for several months and has often been taken advantage of by new incumbents to promote measures previously thought of as unpopular or otherwise politically risky.