[JURIST] The president of the French National Assembly [official website, in French] Bernard Accoyer [official profile, in French] announced Tuesday the creation of a commission to study the wearing of the Muslim burqa [JURIST news archive]. The statement came after French President Nicolas Sarkozy [official website, in French; JURIST news archive] strongly criticized the practice [transcript, PDF, in French] Monday during a major policy address. Becoming the first French president to address parliament in nearly a century and a half, Sarkozy discussed [BBC report] concerns that burqas degrade women and are a sign of subservience. Announcing his support for the establishment of a commission to investigate the cause of the increasing number of Muslim women who are choosing to wear the burqa and whether the women are doing so voluntarily, Sarkozy said:
The problem of the burqa is not a religious problem. It is an issue of freedom and dignity of women. This is not a religious symbol, it is a sign of subservience, it is a sign of lowering.
I want to say solemnly, the burqa is not welcome in France. We cannot accept in our country women trapped behind a fence, cut off from social life, deprived of any identity. This is not the idea that we have of the dignity of women.
Parliament has expressed a desire to address this question. This is the best way to proceed. There needs to be a debate and all viewpoints must be expressed. Where outside parliament could this better be expressed? But I say to you, let us not be ashamed of our values. We must not be afraid to defend them.
The speech received mixed reaction from the Muslim community. Some Muslim leaders, including the Secretary of State for Human Rights Rama Yade [official profile, in French], believe that banning the burqa would help to protect Muslim women who are being forced to wear the veil. Other Islamic leaders believe that any limitations to their rights would lead to further isolation of the 5 million Muslims currently living in France.
The controversy between the Muslim community and the French government over the burqa has existed for several years. In December 2008, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) [official website] unanimously ruled [JURIST report] that there was no human rights violation when a French school expelled two students for refusing to remove their headscarves. Last July, a Muslim woman's citizenship application was denied [JURIST report] because she failed to assimilate to French culture and she practiced a type of Islam found incompatible with French values. In 2004, France passed a law [JURIST report] banning students from conspicuous religious items, including Muslim headscarves, in schools.