PARIS -- French citizens will have to pay for new identity cards that hold their biometric information in electronic format -- and carrying the cards will become compulsory, if the minister of the interior gets his way.
Last month, the government outlined its plan to replace the identity cards and passports offered to French citizens with new ones that carry a microchip containing digitized photographs and fingerprints. The plan is to introduce the passports in 2006, and the identity cards a year later.
Owning a national identity card ceased to be compulsory in 1955, but Minister of the Interior Dominique de Villepin wants to force the French to carry the cards again -- and this time, he wants to charge for them, he told the newspaper France Soir in an interview published Tuesday.
Evoking threats including organized crime, illegal immigration, identity theft and, inevitably, terrorism, De Villepin said the secure electronic national identity card is necessary to defend France's frontiers and citizens, according to the newspaper.
"For the system to be truly effective in terms of security, the identity card should become compulsory within a relatively short period of time, about five years," he said, according to the report. De Villepin's office confirmed his remarks.
Although French citizens must prove their identity to police or administration officials on request, they don't need a national identity card to do this today: they can present another official document such as a driving license or a passport (even expired), or call witnesses.
Since 1998, France has made no charge for national identity cards, while passports cost €60 ($78).
Issuing the electronic documents will cost €205 million a year, about €25 million more than the existing paper ones, De Villepin said, adding that he intends to pass on the increase in cost to citizens.
"The price of the passport will be increased a little. And there'll be a fee for the identity card: that's the price of security," De Villepin said.
The card proposed by the French government will contain several kinds of information, isolated into distinct blocks. One contains the information printed on the card, including name, date of birth, address, signature, photo and fingerprints, in an encrypted form accessible only to authorized officials. Another block will authenticate the card as genuine but contain no further information.
The new identity card will also hold a digital signature for signing official documents such as tax declarations or private correspondence, and even a private storage space in which cardholders can store other information of their own choosing.
There will be two ways to access the data on the card: Police and other authorities will be issued contactless card readers. The card, the size of a credit card, will slot into a reader attached to a PC or other terminal for applications such as electronic signature of documents.
Future versions of the card may also contain digitized iris prints, De Villepin told the newspaper.
France's European neighbors have implemented a patchwork of laws on the subject of electronic identity.
The Germans already pay for their compulsory paper identity cards, and there are plans to introduce an electronic version carrying fingerprint information. Belgium is in the process of issuing a compulsory electronic identity card to all citizens over the age of 12. The Belgian cards cost around €10 but contain no biometric information.
Finland issues electronic identity cards containing only the holder's name and some 1024-bit encryption keys in electronic format. The cards cost €40 and are valid for just three years because, authorities say, there's no way of telling whether 1024-bit encryption will be strong enough to withstand attacks over longer periods, as computer power is always increasing. The cards are also printed with a photo and other information, and are valid for travel to certain countries.
The U.K. has no national ID card. The government tried to create one, but failed to pass the necessary legislation before the end of the parliamentary session. It may reintroduce the bill if it wins the country's general election on May 5.