France may have Western Europe's largest Muslim population – five million – but it was also the country that, five years ago, banned the Muslim headscarf and other religious symbols from public schools. President Nicolas Sarkozy has now joined calls for the burkha to be banned:
"We cannot accept to have in our country women who are prisoners behind netting, cut off from all social life, deprived of identity. 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. It will not be welcome on the territory of the French republic."
President Sarkozy's stance contrasts with that of President Obama, set out in Cairo last month:
"The US government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab, and to punish those who would deny it."
The Times' Charles Bremner reports mixed views from France's Muslim leaders:
"Imam of the Paris Mosque Dalil Boubakeur supported an inquiry, saying that face covering for women was a fundamentalist practice originating in Afghanistan that was not prescribed by Islam. The national Muslim Council, which is less tied to the establishment, accused lawmakers of wasting time on a fringe phenomenon. "To raise the subject like this … is a way of stigmatising Islam," council leader Mohammed Moussaoui said."