Versailles (France): The burqa is "not welcome" in France because it is not a symbol of religion but a sign of subservience for women, President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Monday
We cannot accept to have in our country women who are prisoners behind netting, cut off from all social life, deprived of identity," he said. "That is not the idea that the French republic has of women's dignity."
"The burqa is not a sign of religion, it is a sign of subservience," he told lawmakers. "It will not be welcome on the territory of the French republic."
Sarkozy told a special session of parliament he was in favour of holding the inquiry sought by some French lawmakers into whether Muslim women who cover themselves fully in public undermine French secularism and women's rights.
But the president added "we must not fight the wrong battle, in the republic the Muslim religion must be respected as much as other religions" in France, which has Europe's biggest Muslim population estimated at several million.
The proposal to hold an inquiry has won support from many politicians from both the left and right, but France's official Muslim council accused lawmakers of wasting time focusing on a fringe phenomenon.
"To raise the subject like this, via a parliamentary committee, is a way of stigmatising Islam and the Muslims of France," Mohammed Moussaoui, head of the French Council for the Muslim Religion (CFCM), said last week.
Later Monday, Sarkozy was expected to host a state dinner with Sheik Hamad Bin Jassem Al Thani of Qatar. Many women in the Persian Gulf state wear Islamic head coverings in public — whether while shopping or driving cars.
France enacted a law in 2004 banning the Islamic headscarf and other conspicuous religious symbols from public schools, sparking fierce debate at home and abroad. France has Western Europe's largest Muslim population, an estimated 5 million people.
A government spokesman said Friday that it would seek to set up a parliamentary commission that could propose legislation aimed at barring Muslim women from wearing the head-to-toe gowns outside the home.
The issue is highly divisive even within the government. France's junior minister for human rights, Rama Yade, said she was open to a ban if it is aimed at protecting women forced to wear the burqa.