Lawmakers launch burqa probe

One day after President Nicolas Sarkozy said the burqa was "not welcome" in France, the National Assembly is launching an investigation into the number of Muslim women who have chosen to wear the controversial head-to-toe veil.


AFP - The French National Assembly decided Tuesday to set up an inquiry into the rising number of Muslim women who wear the burka after President Nicolas Sarkozy spoke out against the full Islamic veil.

In a historic address to parliament Monday, Sarkozy said the burka was not a symbol of religious faith but a sign of women's "subservience" and served notice that the head-to-toe veil was "not welcome" in staunchly secular France.

Speaker Bernard Accoyer said 32 lawmakers from right-wing and leftist parties will be examining the thorny issue for six months beginning in July and report on its findings.


The lower house of parliament was responding to a call from a group of lawmakers, many of whom are from Sarkozy's right-wing UMP party, for a panel to look at ways of restricting the wearing of the burka.

Home to Europe's largest Muslim minority, France has been engulfed in debate over whether women's rights and the nation's strong secular tradition are under attack when Muslim women cover themselves fully.

Some ministers have suggested that a law should be enacted banning the burka in public places, but critics argue that a better approach would be to resort to education and outreach.

French party leaders decided to set up the fact-finding mission during a meeting, but they did not opt for a full commission of inquiry which has a broader mandate, as called for by the MPs.

During his address to both houses of parliament, Sarkozy waded into the raging debate and made clear he supported measures to discourage Muslim women from fully covering themselves in France.

"We cannot accept to have in our country women who are prisoners behind netting, cut off from all social life, deprived of identity," Sarkozy said in the speech delivered at the Chateau de Versailles.

"That is not the idea that the French republic has of women's dignity."

France, home to an estimated five million Muslims, passed a law in 2004 banning headscarves or any other "conspicuous" religious symbol in state schools to defend secularism.

In a landmark address to the Muslim world in Cairo this month, US President Barack Obama urged Western countries to avoid "dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear."

Sarkozy picked up on his comments when they met in Normandy a few days later and argued that France, as a secular state, had set acceptable limits on headscarves at schools and in government offices.

The French leader on Tuesday made clear he drew a distinction between women who feel faith-bound to respect the code of Islamic dress and the hardline conservatives who enforce the head-to-toe veil.

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

Home to some five million Muslims, France has been caught up in a debate over how far it is willing to go to accommodate Islam without undermining the tradition of separating church and state, enshrined in a flagship 1905 law.

Last year a Moroccan woman was refused French citizenship after social services said she wore a burka and was living in "submission" to her husband.

Communist MP Andre Gerin spearheaded the drive for a parliamentary panel that would look at ways to restrict the burka, which he describes as a "prison" and "degrading" for women.

The MP is also mayor of the southern city of Venissieux, home to a large north African immigrant population, where he says the sight of covered women is not a rare occurrence.

France's official Muslim council however has accused lawmakers of wasting time on a fringe phenomenon.

Mohammed Moussaoui, head of the French Council for the Muslim Religion (CFCM), said last week that such an approach risked "stigmatising Islam and the Muslims of France."

It is not known how many women wear the burka in France, but estimates have varied between a few thousand and several hundred.

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