PARIS // France moved closer yesterday to a ban on women wearing full veils in public when the president Nicolas Sarkozy told a historic meeting of politicians at the palace of Versailles that the head-to-toe burqa was "not welcome" in the country. In a state of the republic speech to deputies and senators, permitted for the first time since 1875 under a recent change to the French constitution, Mr Sarkozy pledged his support for a parliamentary commission of inquiry that observers expect to lead to legislation.
Proposed by the communist mayor of Vénissieux, a town near Lyon with a large immigrant population, the call for an inquiry has won support from the Right and Left. It would consider ways of outlawing dress described by critics as "a form of moving imprisonment". The president won warm applause after telling more than 900 politicians it was right for parliament to deal with the issue: "I remain firm that secularism is not the rejection of religion. It is a principle of respect for all religions, all beliefs.
"In our republic, the Muslim religion should be respected as much as any other. The burqa is not a religious problem. It is an issue of the dignity of women. "It is a sign of subservience, submission. I want to say solemnly that it will not be welcome on our territory." Mr Sarkozy said: "We cannot accept in our country women who are prisoners behind netting, cut off from all social life, deprived of identity."
The veiling of women has provoked sharp debate in France. In supporting legislation, Mr Sarkozy has underlined differences with the US president, Barack Obama, who said in his recent Cairo speech that his country's attachment to freedom meant it would not be telling people what to wear. In France, portrayals of the burqa as a form of oppression usually refer to the one-piece covering used in Afghanistan rather than the garment that is more commonplace in the Gulf and conceals part of the face.
It is thought only a few thousand women in France, out of a total Muslim population of an estimated six million, actually wear it. Clamour for legislation has arisen five years after a controversial law banned girls from wearing Muslim headwear at school, a restriction that also affects women in public service jobs. At a time when the French government is banning the wearing of hoods during public demonstrations, because some participants intent on criminal activity use them to avoid identification, opponents of the burqa argue that full head and body coverings harm the cause of integration.
Muslim opinion is divided. The French Council of Muslims (CFCM), the main representative body, has already come out against a commission of inquiry. Mohammed Moussaoui, the president, said a ban offended French principles of freedom, pointing out that the use of the niqab or burqa was, in any case, "rare and extremely marginal" in France. However, Fadela Amara, the housing minister and a human rights campaigner of Algerian family origins, implied that women were being forced against their will into wearing "this kind of tomb". She added: "We must do everything to stop burkas from spreading."
Rama Yade, the Senegalese-born French secretary of state for human rights, said at the weekend she had no objection to legislation outlawing the full veil. She told Europe 1 radio tat France had a duty to act in "defence of our secular system and the dignity of women". "I was elected to represent a Parisian banlieue [suburb]. Previously, in the working-class area where I grew up, I never saw women dressed in burkas," she said. "Today it's something you see regularly."
The president began his speech with an admission that the economic crisis was not over, pledged his government's commitment to finding solutions designed to help those most at risk and admitted that the country's "model of integration" no longer worked. "To achieve equality, we must give more to those who have less, using social rather than ethnic criteria," he said. The event, broadcast live on television, was boycotted by communist and green deputies and criticised by the opposition Socialist Party, all insisting that it was in conflict with republican principles and amounted to a denial of democracy.
@Email:firstname.lastname@example.org * With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse and Reuters