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Mass DNA sweep in privacy-loving France: Why no backlash?

To identify a rapist, police have asked more than 500 men and boys at a school to give DNA evidence. So far, the French public seem supportive.

PARIS  The French fiercely protect their right to privacy – so much so that the country has famously been butting heads with American Internet giants like Google to protect French users from potential intrusions into their private lives.

But when it comes to criminality, the views are much laxer. In a move that would be sure to provoke anger in the US and raise tough constitutional questions, police are asking more than 500 males at a private Roman Catholic high school to submit to DNA testing to help find a rapist.

Because of its scale – this is the first-ever sweep of a school – the action has garnered national attention, along with some concerns about civil rights violations, especially of children. But the school and its student body have largely submitted to the investigation without further fuss.

Isabelle Wekstein, a lawyer and expert on media privacy, says that although the French cherish their privacy, this case doesn’t seem to have produced mass outcry, most likely because of its criminal context. This is not about the paparazzi or the life of the president, but of a perpetrator and a child victim. “This has to be put in the context of the rape,” she says. “I can understand it if this is the only way for the police to do their job.”

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All the male students and employees at Fenelon-Notre Dame in La Rochelle, on the western coast of France, have been asked to provide police with DNA samples by Wednesday in an effort to solve the rape of a 16-year-old student. The girl was raped in a bathroom on the premises this fall, and with the lights turned off she couldn’t identity the perpetrator. All other efforts to find him have failed.

“Nobody has objected, and the samples have been taken in a calm and orderly fashion,” local prosecutor Isabelle Pagenelle told reporters. “To say this is a first does not automatically mean it is not a legitimate operation.… We have nothing to go on except the DNA.”

Europe has more comprehensive privacy laws than the US, and France very actively investigates breaches. “France takes data privacy very seriously,” says Pascale Gelly, founder of Paris-based Cabinet Gelly, which specializes in privacy law. 

France has made headlines for its confrontations with Google over the company’s data storage methods. Privacy is so ingrained in the culture that this winter, when French President François Hollande was photographed late at night on a motorbike, amid swirling accusations that he was having an affair, many asked whether this was the nation’s business at all.

This way of thinking is unimaginable for many Americans, whose president’s personal life is considered a matter of national interest. But a blanket DNA search – even a voluntary one – would raise fears about violations of civil rights and the Fourth Amendment’s protection against search and seizure in the absence of a probable cause.

The French have shown more willingness to provide information when it comes to criminality. Such sweeps are not common, but this is not the first to have been ordered here. Similar tests for unsolved rape and murder have led to widespread DNA testing. According to the Associated Press, France’s DNA database has rapidly expanded since its creation in the late 1990s, growing to 2 million profiles today.

Still, this case has caused some pause, especially because it involves children. “Massive testing will always raise privacy issues, and that’s good because it’s always important to [ask] the question, ‘Is it proportionate or not?’” says Ms. Gelly.

Both the students and their parents must give consent to the testing, and authorities say the DNA samples will be destroyed after the analysis. But Ms. Pagenelle raised concern among lawyers by saying that those who refuse the test will be considered suspects. For Joseph Cohen-Sabban, a French lawyer, this goes against the rights of the citizens.

“Refusing the DNA sample is a right when you are not in custody,” he says. “However, the prosecutor indicated that the person who refuses to submit to this test could be taken to the police station, and the refusal may arouse suspicions, which could lead to custody.”

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Even so, students and employees of the private school have expressed eagerness to help solve a crime that affected one of their own. “This happened during the school day in a confined space,” Chantal Devaux, the school’s director, told French media. “The decision to take such a large sample was made because it was the only way to advance the investigation.”

“The lack of public reactions was a surprise,” says Mr. Cohen-Sabban. “But, at the same time, the circumstances and the stakes of this crime can explain this silence.”