PARIS (Reuters) - Burqas are not welcome in France because they are a symbol of the subjugation of women, President Nicolas Sarkozy said Monday.
In his first public comments on an issue fuelling passionate debate, he backed a group of French legislators who expressed concern last week that more and more Muslim women were wearing the garments that cover the face and body from head to toe.
“The issue of the burqa is not a religious issue, it is a question of freedom and of women’s dignity,” Sarkozy said.
“The burqa is not a religious sign, it is a sign of the subjugation, of the submission of women. I want to say solemnly that it will not be welcome on our territory.”
His remarks won strong applause from legislators during a wide-ranging speech at the grandiose Palace of Versailles.
France, home to Europe’s largest Muslim minority, is divided over how to reconcile secular values with religious freedom.
Many see the burqa as an infringement of women’s rights and say it is being imposed on many Muslim women by fundamentalists.
“We cannot accept that some women in our country are prisoners behind a grille, cut off from social life, deprived of their identity,” Sarkozy said.
He backed a cross-party initiative by some 60 legislators for a parliamentary commission to find ways to stop the burqa’s spread.
“All views must be expressed ... I tell you, we must not be ashamed of our values, we must not be afraid of defending them,” Sarkozy said.
This new debate is reminiscent of a controversy that raged for a decade in France about Muslim girls wearing headscarves in class. Eventually, a law in 2004 banned pupils from wearing conspicuous signs of their religion at state schools.
Critics say the law stigmatized Muslims at a time when the country should be trying to heal a rift between mainstream society and many youths from an immigrant background, caused by decades of discrimination on the job and housing markets.
The sight of women in burqas is rare in most parts of France. Statistics are not available but anecdotal evidence suggests that in some areas the number wearing them is rising.
Cabinet members are divided on whether a ban is appropriate.
The secretary of state in charge of regenerating poor urban neighborhoods, feminist firebrand Fadela Amara, supports a total ban, which a government spokesman said was possible.
But Immigration Minister Eric Besson said a ban wouldn’t work, while the secretary of state in charge of families, Nadine Morano, warned that some women could end up confined to their homes if they were not allowed to go out wearing burqas.
A government-approved body representing French Muslims spoke out against a ban Saturday, saying it would breach individual freedoms and stigmatize Muslims.