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Page last updated at 19:27 GMT, Monday, 22 June 2009 20:27 UK

Sarkozy stirs French burka debate

By Emma Jane Kirby
BBC News, Paris

Since this was the first time in almost one and a half centuries that a French president had been allowed to address parliament, President Nicolas Sarkozy's speech was already on course to ruffle a few feathers.

The Greens and Communists refused to attend and the Socialists left early, claiming the venue for the address - the Chateau of Versailles, which was home to King Louis XIV - smacked of monarchy and a thirst for power.

But it was the French leader's attack on the burka that really caused a stir.

He expressed his strong distaste for the head-to-toe Islamic veil, calling it not a sign of religion but a sign of subservience.

"It will not be welcome on French soil," he said." We cannot accept, in our country, women imprisoned behind a mesh, cut off from society, deprived of all identity. That is not the French republic's idea of women's dignity."

President Sarkozy's comments have not come out of the blue.

They are in response to a call last week by a group of 65 cross-party MPs, led by the Communist Andre Gerin, who wants a parliamentary commission set up to investigate the spread of the burka in France.

They want to see whether such a spread is indicative of a radicalisation of Islam, whether women are being forced to cover themselves or are doing so voluntarily, and whether wearing the burka undermines French secularism.

Mr Gerin believes the burka "amounts to a breach of individual freedom on our national territory".

Because, if the mention of monarchy triggers warning bells in France, the mention of religion triggers much louder ones.

Ban in schools

The concept of secularism or "laicite" is sacred in France.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy
We must not fight the wrong battle. In the republic, the Muslim faith must be respected as much as other religions
Nicolas Sarkozy,
French President

The separation of church and state is jealously guarded by everyone from school teachers to government ministers - and the constitution states the republic "does not recognise, subsidise or remunerate any religious body".

It underpinned the French Revolution, and has been a basic tenet of the country's progressive thought since the 18th century when French Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire, Diderot and Montesquieu regarded religion as divisive, benighted and intolerant.

It was this same concept that was invoked five years ago to ban conspicuous signs of religion - including Islamic headscarves - from schools.

That decision sparked controversy and debate across Europe, with critics claiming it stigmatised Muslims at a time when France needed to be stepping up its fight against rife discrimination in the job market, which had caused so many youths of Muslim origin to feel forgotten by French society.

This latest call for a potential ban of the burka has prompted the head of the French Council for the Muslim Religion to warn MPs they risk stigmatising Muslims again.

But the special inquiry does have the backing of Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Paris Mosque and a former head of the Muslim council, who insists that Islam in France should be an "open and convivial Islam that allows people to live side by side".

He fears that anecdotal evidence that more women are wearing the burka in France is linked to an "excess, a radicalisation" among some Muslims.

Find out about different styles of Muslim headscarf

With five million Muslims living here, France is home to Western Europe's largest Islamic community and the government will be anxious not to isolate the Muslim population by being seen to be trying to dictate to women what they should wear.

The issue has even split the French cabinet.

Rama Yade, the Muslim human rights minister, said she would be open to a ban if it was aimed at protecting women who wore a burka against their will. The immigration minister, Eric Besson, believes a ban will only create tensions.

President Sarkozy may have given his backing to an open debate on the burka, but he also insisted France needed to make sure it knew exactly what it was debating.

"We must not fight the wrong battle," he said. "In the republic, the Muslim faith must be respected as much as other religions."



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