Burka sign of subservience, not religion, says French president

French President Nicolas Sarkozy says the practice of wearing the head-to-toe Muslim burka is not a religious sign, but one of "debasement" for women.

Full-body gowns that are worn by the most conservative Muslim women have no place in France, President Nicolas Sarkozy said Monday.

Two women, one on the right wearing the niqab, walk together in the Belsunce district of downtown Marseille in central France on Friday. ((Claude Paris/Associated Press))

Speaking to a joint session of parliament, the French leader said wearing the burka or the niqab isn't about religion, but the subjugation of women.

"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.

He said the burka — an all-concealing traditional dress, with built-in mesh covering the eyes — is "a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement."

"I want to say solemnly that it will not be welcome on our territory," he said.

Dozens of French legislators have proposed a parliamentary commission to study the small but growing trend of wearing burkas and niqabs.

In France, the terms "burka" and "niqab" often are used interchangeably. The latter is a full-face veil, often in black. Unlike the burka it does not obscure a woman's eyes.

On Friday, government spokesman Luc Chatel told French television the commission could propose legislation aimed at banning the burka in public if it is found to be degrading for women.

In 2004, a law banning the Islamic headscarf and other highly visible religious symbols from French public schools sparked a heated debate on the issue.

Proponents insisted such a ban was necessary to ensure France's schools remain strictly secular, while some Muslims countered the law specifically targeted them and unduly punished Muslim girls.

With files from The Associated Press