France ponders burka ban
French legislators in Paris began Wednesday to look into the spread of Muslim women wearing full-body robes and veils like burkas, as one leading lawmaker suggested the garments could be forbidden gradually, rather than being banned outright.
A committee of 32 legislators from all four major political parties in the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, was expected to deliver its report on the issue by the end of the year.
Jean-Francois Cope, head of the governing conservative party UMP, had earlier called for a ban on the veils in France, but on Wednesday, in an interview with the Le Parisien newspaper, he said any ban should not be "hasty."
He suggested a two-stage process — "a ban preceded by six months to a year of dialogue, explanation and warnings."
Cope also said it's a "political debate, not a religious one" because the veils pose "a problem of security and public order" by concealing the wearer's identity. "These clothes exclude women from the national community, deny their identity," he said.
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.
Last month, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said burkas imprison women and would not be tolerated in the country.
In response to his comments, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, AQIM, issued a statement on Islamic websites last week vowing to "seek vengeance against France," though the declaration could not be independently verified.
Human Rights Watch, a top British Muslim group, as well as Lebanon's most influential Shia cleric have all criticized the idea of a ban and asked Sarkozy to reconsider his statements.
About five million Muslims live in France, which is home to western Europe's largest population of Muslims.
The number of French Muslim women who wear full-body robes and veils that cover everything but the eyes is still small, but growing.
With files from The Associated Press