The French government was urged on Friday to ease its taboo on statistics on ethnic origin in a report commissioned by President Nicolas Sarkozy's "diversity tsar" to look at ways of fighting discrimination.
The report said France's ban on officially classifying people by ethnicity or asking questions in the national census about their race or origins should be maintained.
But it recommended that censuses should henceforth include a question on the nationality or place of birth of people's parents, an apparently minor change but for France a major easing of its staunch opposition to ethnic statistics.
"It is the only way of being able to follow the course of the children of immigrants, to see what happens to them, what are their destinies... their exposure to discrimination," said Francois Heran.
Heran, the former head of national demographics institute, led the 27-strong committee that on Friday presented its report to Yazid Sabeg, a businessman of Algerian origin appointed by Sarkozy to advise him on fighting discrimination.
Sabeg sparked a heated political row when he suggested as he commissioned the report last year that the ban on ethnic statistics should perhaps be lifted.
Other countries have detailed figures on the ethnic make-up of their populations but these are largely banned in the French republic which is based on the idea that all citizens are equal and free from distinctions of race or religion.
In reality French citizens or residents of foreign origin are often subjected to racism and discrimination, which in part led to the riots that broke out in 2005 in high-immigrant suburbs across the country.
Sarkozy has argued that the lack of statistics on France's ethnic groups frustrates attempts to measure and deal with inequality.
The new report comes amid a debate on national identity that has divided France.
Critics argue that it is fomenting anti-foreigner and anti-Muslim sentiment and is little more than a ploy by the rightwinger Sarkozy to grab far-right votes in regional elections to be held next month.
The government is due to hold a seminar next Monday to consider its conclusions from the national identity debate.