PARIS - President Nicolas Sarkozy declared yesterday that the Islamic burqa was not welcome in France, branding the face-covering, body-length gown as a symbol of subservience that suppresses women's identities and turns them into "prisoners behind a screen."
But there was a mixed message in the tough words: an admission that the country's long-held principle of ethnic assimilation, which insists that newcomers shed their traditions and adapt to French culture, is failing because it doesn't give immigrants and their French-born children a fair chance.
In a high-profile speech to lawmakers in the historic chateau at Versailles, Sarkozy said the head-to-toe Muslim body coverings were not in accord with French values - some of the strongest language against burqas from a European leader at a time when some Western officials are seeking to ease tensions with Muslims. world.
"In our country, we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity," Sarkozy said to extended applause of the lawmakers gathered where French kings once held court.
"The burqa is not a religious sign; it's a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement - I want to say it solemnly," he said. "It will not be welcome on the territory of the French Republic."
Some Muslim leaders interpret the Quran to require that women wear a headscarf, niqab, or burqa in the presence of a man who is not their husband or close relative.
France is home to Western Europe's largest population of Muslims, estimated at five million. A small but growing group of French women wear burqas and niqabs, which either cloak the entire body or cover everything but the eyes.
Critics fear the issue could increase discrimination against all French Muslims. But Sarkozy also said that immigrants faced economic challenges in France and that the government needed to do more to help them.
"Who doesn't see that our integration model isn't working anymore?" Sarkozy said. "Instead of producing equality, it produces inequality. Instead of producing cohesion, it creates resentment."
The unemployment rate for immigrants and their French-born children is higher than the national average. Many children of immigrants complain of discrimination, saying they get passed over for jobs because they have "foreign-sounding" names. Frustration of many children of North African and black immigrants boiled over in a three-week wave of riots in 2005.
The burqa comments made up only a few lines of Sarkozy's speech, which focused on the global economic crisis and a cabinet shake-up expected tomorrow. The address was the first by a French president to parliament in 136 years; the last was in 1873, before lawmakers banned the practice to protect the separation of powers and keep the president in check. That ban was scrapped last year.
French police yesterday arrested 25 people as suspects in a multimillion-dollar robbery at Harry Winston jewelers and recovered some of the stolen jewels.
The robbers, some dressed as women and wearing wigs, grabbed $118 million worth of loot Dec. 5 at the store just off the Champs-Elysees. It was one of France's largest jewelry thefts.
Investigators had been watching suspects in and
around Paris for months. Arrests were made Sunday and yesterday.
The suspects range in age from 22 to 67 and include some women. Police also recovered weapons, as well as $345,000 in cash.
- Associated Press