updated 10/25/2009 3:41:10 PM ET 2009-10-25T19:41:10

France's immigration minister on Sunday proposed a national debate on French "national identity," saying it should not include face-covering Muslim veils.

"For me, no burqas on the street," Eric Besson said on LCI television, referring to the all-encompassing veils such as those worn in Afghanistan. But he didn't directly suggest a ban, saying it was up to lawmakers to decide whether that would be the most effective measure.

"The burqa runs counter to national values," he said, saying such veils are an affront to women's rights and the French commitment to equality.

President Nicolas Sarkozy has said the burqa imprisons women and is not welcome in France, and a parliamentary commission is holding six months of hearings that could lay the groundwork for a law banning Muslim women from wearing head-to-toe and face-covering veils in public.

Besson suggested a 2 1/2-month-long "great debate on national identity" on the theme "What does it mean to be French?" The idea is "to reaffirm values of national identity and pride in being French," he said.

"In France, the nation and the republic remain the strongest ramparts against ... fundamentalist tendencies," Besson said. "France is diversity, and France is unity."

Debate on French identity
Besson said foreign residents in France should speak better French and that French schoolchildren should have more opportunities to sing the national anthem, La Marseillaise.

The idea of a national debate on French identity is likely to rankle immigrants' and minority rights groups who say Sarkozy's government is too intolerant of outsiders. Himself the son of a Hungarian immigrant, Sarkozy has sought to crack down on illegal immigration, focusing on skilled immigrants instead.

Besson defended a government decision to send illegal Afghan immigrants back to Kabul on charter flights last week.

The head of France's largest Muslim body, Mohammed Moussaoui, told the parliamentary panel earlier this month that the full-body veil — worn by a small minority of Muslims in France — is an "entry way" to radical Islam, but that the national debate over whether to ban it is stigmatizing the entire Muslim community.

With an estimated 5 million Muslims, France has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe. Islam is the second religion in France after Roman Catholicism.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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