Rights groups have accused France of carrying out targeted arrests of foreign migrants to fill chartered deportation flights to China and Romania, in possible breach of European rights law.
Police squads have deployed across the Paris subway system in recent months, systematically checking the identity of foreign-looking individuals, as part of a government drive to step up expulsions of illegal migrants.
In one incident witnessed by reporters on Sept. 2, officers singled out all Asian passengers, searching those unable to produce ID papers and bundling them off to a police van where a Chinese interpreter was at the ready.
Why target Asians?
"Because we already had enough blacks," one officer replied.
Six days later, the first chartered deportation flight between France and China was set to leave Paris.
It was finally postponed after China asked for more time to draw up the necessary paperwork.
"They need to fill the planes to make them financially viable, so they don't look at each foreigner's case in detail," charged Jean-Pierre Alaux, a research director at the Gisti immigrant information and support group.
The European Convention on Human Rights bans the "collective expulsion of aliens" -- meaning any measure constraining foreigners, as a group, to leave a country, unless each individual case has been thoroughly examined.
Belgium was convicted of breaching the convention in 2002, over the rounding-up and expulsion of a group of 74 Roma gypsies from Slovakia.
According to Cimade, the only immigrant support group with access to French immigrant detention centers, "several massive and systematic arrests of Chinese were carried out in Paris earlier this month, to fill the centers."
"There are regular targeted arrests: the authorities announce in advance there will be charters, the government flights are booked, then they detain people of the nationality in question," said Annette Huraux, a legal adviser at Cimade.
Meanwhile, the European Court of Human Rights is examining a case brought in protest at the expulsion of five Afghan nationals on a charter flight on Dec. 20, according to Alaux.
"At the Gare de l'Est [in Paris], police, accompanied by a Dari translator, were arresting only those of Afghan appearance -- the blacks were amazed not to have their papers checked," he said.
Since May, 480 Romanians have been deported from France aboard eight charter flights, according to interior ministry figures.
The rights group La Voix des Roms said that there has been "a growing number of round-ups targeting Roms, in blatant disregard of the European Convention of Human Rights."
The Paris police department and the French interior ministry both refused to comment last week on the allegations regarding grouped deportations.
Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy -- a frontrunner for next year's presidential elections -- has championed a tough line toward the country's estimated 200,000 to 400,000 illegal immigrants.
The government has vowed to step up the pace of deportations, and has scrapped the automatic right to residency papers for migrants who have been in the country for 10 years.
The rhythm of expulsions has been steadily rising, from 15,000 in 2004 to 20,000 last year, and Sarkozy has set a national target of 25,000 for this year.
The authorities are, however, examining roughly 30,000 residency applications from illegal immigrant families with school-age children, in the wake of a major grassroots campaign to block their deportation.