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France: liberty, equality, and fraternity – but no burqas

After Sarkozy's speech, France divided over prospect of ban.

By Staff writer / June 23, 2009

Two women, one wearing the niqab, a veil worn by the most conservative Muslims that exposes only a woman's eyes, right, walk side by side, in the Belsunce district of downtown Marseille, central France, Friday. The French government's spokesman says he favors the creation of a parliamentary commission to study the small but growing trend of burqa wear in France.

Claude Paris/AP



Leading Muslims and the media in France here have indicated general support of French president Nicolas Sarkozy's striking comments Monday that the burqa cover for Muslim women is "not welcome on French soil," though opinion is divided on whether the president's cultural stricture should be extended to an outright ban of the burqa for women.

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On Tuesday, a diverse group of French lawmakers announced a six-month study to see if a ban is warranted on the black veil, known in the Gulf states as a niqab, and in northern Pakistan and Afghanistan as a burqa.

President Sarkozy, in the first address in 136 years before a joint session of the French parliament and standing in the opulent Versailles Palace, took on the burqa in hard terms – a guaranteed headline maker – as part of a larger state-of-the-union-style speech.

"In our country, we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity," he said, going on to call it a form of "subservience" – not religious garb.

France has the largest Muslim population, some 5 million people, in Europe. In reacting to Sarkozy, Mohammed Moussaoui, head of the French Council of Muslim Faith, the first official Muslim group in France, says that wearing the burqa in a secular modern state itself "runs the risk of stigmatizing Islam."

But he added that most French Muslims emphatically opposed a ban, saying it threatened religious freedoms, and that "there are other ways of handling this than passing a law."

Muslim head scarves for woman have been a social and legal flash point in France for nearly 20 years. In March 2004, head coverings for Muslim girls and women were forbidden in public schools as part of a larger ban on "ostentatious religious clothing and symbols" that included large crosses and Jewish yarmulkes. The burqa is a more extreme form of covering, utilizing a slit or screen for vision.

Headlines for head scarves?

In downtown Paris, burqas are rarely seen – save around high-priced hotels and nearby shopping centers, which draw Gulf-state tourists. Their growth in the suburbs remains apocryphal, says Jean Bauberot, sociologist at the School for Advanced Studies in Paris.

"There are no statistics on the wearing of the burqa," Mr. Bauberot says, adding that "for a calm, rational debate we need knowledge. But in recent days, several people seem to have found an answer even before making an inquiry!"

Sarkozy's flashing anti-burqa rhetorical sword at Versailles, home of "the Sun King" Louis XIV, came as something of a surprise.