President Nicolas Sarkozy lashed out Monday at the practice of wearing the Muslim burqa, insisting the full-body religious gown is a sign of the "debasement" of women and that it won't be welcome in France.
The French leader expressed support for a recent call by dozens of legislators to create a parliamentary commission to study a small but growing trend of wearing the full-body garment in France.
In the first presidential address in 136 years to a joint session of France's two houses of parliament, Sarkozy laid out his support for a ban even before the panel has been approved — braving critics who fear the issue is a marginal one and could stigmatize Muslims in France.
"In our country, we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity," Sarkozy said to extended applause in a speech at the Chateau of Versailles southwest of Paris.
"The burqa is not a religious sign, it's a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement — I want to say it solemnly," he said. "It will not be welcome on the territory of the French Republic."
In France, the terms "burqa" and "niqab" often are used interchangeably. The former refers to a full-body covering worn largely in Afghanistan with only a mesh screen over the eyes, whereas the latter is a full-body veil, often in black, with slits for the eyes.
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.
Fierce debate over headscarf ban
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.
But Immigration Minister Eric Besson said a ban would only "create tensions."
A leading French Muslim group warned against studying the burqa.