PARIS, France - In an address to the French parliament at the Palace of Versailles on Monday, President Nicolas Sarkozy called the Muslim burka a "debasement of women," which was not welcome in France.
Monday's address to both houses of parliament was the first state of the nation speech by a president since 1873.
"It [the burka] will not be welcome on French soil," Sarkozy said. "In our country, we cannot accept women imprisoned behind a veil, cut off from society, deprived of all identity. That is not the French republic's idea of women's dignity," he said.
"The burka is not a religious sign. It is a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement. It will not be welcome in the territory of the French republic," the president said.
Sarkozy's remarks come a week after 65 French parliamentarians called for a ministerial commission to investigate the increasing numbers of Muslim women wearing the burka.
MP Andre Gerin, who is leading the call for the investigation, said the Muslim garb "amounts to a breach of individual freedom on our national territory."
In 2004, the French parliament banned outward signs of religion in state schools, including Muslim head scarves.
Sarkozy's latest remarks prompted a warning from the French Council for the Muslim Religion that banning the burka risks offending the country's five million Muslim citizens, the largest European Islamic population.
While the French president welcomed an open debate on the subject, said he it should not be misconstrued as an attack against the Islamic religion.
"A debate has to take place and all views must be expressed," Sarkozy said. "What better place than parliament for this? I tell you we must not be ashamed of our values. We must not be afraid of defending them," he said.
"We must not fight the wrong battle," Sarkozy, adding that in France, "the Muslim faith must be respected as much as other religions."
Two weeks ago, U.S. President Barack Obama criticized the French ban on Muslim head scarves in state schools. Obama said Americans do not believe the government should infringe on people's dress.
Sources: The BBC, Times Online