Sarkozy challenged President Jacques Chirac by calling for affirmative action to help tackle high unemployment among minorities, seen as one of the causes of three weeks of rioting in poor suburbs that abated last week.

But the report - carried out by the High Council on Integration, a panel of academics and cultural figures - backed Chirac's view that positive discrimination or setting quotas for hiring minorities has no place in a state built on the belief that everyone should have equal opportunities.

Affirmative action

"The worst result of the current crisis ... would be to succumb to the temptation to do away with the Republican promise of equal rights and opportunity in place of positive discrimination and ethnic and communal policies," said the government-commissioned report, released on Thursday.

France was recently struck by
three weeks of rioting

The study into integration policies over the last three years was delivered to Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who also opposes affirmative action and is widely seen as Sarkozy's main rival to lead the centre-right into the 2007 presidential election.

Sarkozy has repeatedly signalled his determination to win backing for positive discrimination, and is unlikely to give up.

"I challenge the idea that we all start at the same starting line in life," Sarkozy said this month.

"Some people start further back, because they have a handicap - colour, culture or the district they come from. So we have to help them."

Unemployment

Despite backing the government's policies, the report said the cabinet had been slow to adopt some of the panel's earlier recommendations and that officials could do a better job of communicating policies that were already in place.

The High Council said it had told the government in 2003 it should start offering apprenticeships to 14-year-olds.

Children in France are supposed to stay in school at least until they are 16; but some of the people involved in the recent
riots in poor suburbs were as young as 10, police said.

The government has recently decided to offer professional training to people as young as 14 as part of a package of policies for better integration to head off further unrest among youngsters who feel excluded from mainstream society.

On Thursday, Chirac defended government plans for alternative job training during a visit to a branch of Veolia Environnement, a water, energy and cleaning company with 750 apprentices.

Chirac called on big French companies "to become major players in the fight for jobs".

Unemployment in France is running at 9.8% and Chirac has said that reducing it is one of his priorities.