VERSAILLES, France – President Nicolas Sarkozy said Monday that the Islamic burka is not welcome in secular France, home to Europe's largest Muslim community.
Condemning the head-to-toe cover for women as a symbol of subjugation rather than faith, Sarkozy was emphasising his divergent views from US President Barack Obama.
On a visit to Paris earlier this month, Obama urged Western countries to avoid "dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear."
"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
"That is not the idea that the French republic has of women's dignity.
"The burka is not a sign of religion, it is a sign of subservience," he told lawmakers in a major policy speech at a special session of parliament. "It will not be welcome on the territory of the French republic."
The speech came just two weeks after Sarkozy's and Obama's positions on an issue which has sparked controversy throughout Europe were thrown into sharp focus.
France, home to an estimated five million Muslims, passed a law in 2004 banning headscarves or any other "conspicuous" religious symbol in state schools in a hotly contested bid to defend secularism.
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.
Sarkozy said he was in favour of holding an inquiry sought by some French lawmakers into whether Muslim women who cover themselves fully in public undermine French secularism and women's rights.
But the president added "we must not fight the wrong battle, in the republic the Muslim religion must be respected as much as other religions."
The inquiry proposal has won support from politicians on the left and right, but France's official Muslim council 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."
Later Monday, Moussaoui said the right approach was to focus on religious "teaching and education."
Sarkozy did, however, receive intellectual backing from the head of the grand mosque of Paris, Dalil Boubakeur, who said the president's ideas were "in keeping with the (French) spirit of laicity and republican(ism)."
There are no official figures but several thousand women are thought to wear the burka in France.
Obama this month defended the choice of some Muslim women to wear the Islamic headscarf.
It is "important for Western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practising religion as they see fit for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear," he said.
But Sarkozy told him when the two leaders met in France that his country took a different view.
"Civil servants must not wear any outward sign of their religion, whether they are Catholics, Jewish, Orthodox, Protestants or Muslims," he said, adding that a woman could wear a headscarf provided it was her own decision.
Communist MP Andre Gerin is spearheading 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.
Immigration Minister Eric Besson has warned against reigniting a row on the issue of Islamic dress, saying "France has managed to strike a balance, and it would be dangerous to call that into question."