Russia: Arming Libya Rebels Is “Crude Violation”

July 7, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Lutfi Abu-Aun

2011-07-06T202351Z_158716080_GM1E7770CEB01_RTRMADP_3_LIBYA

Head of the rebel forces Abdel Fattah Younes gestures as he arrives at Green Square in the Kish, Benghazi July 6, 2011, to demonstrate against Muammar Gaddafi and his regime. 

REUTERS/Esam Al-Fetori

TRIPOLI (Reuters) – Russia accused France on Thursday of committing a “crude violation” of a U.N. weapons embargo by arming Libyan rebels, while Washington said it was acting legally, creating a new diplomatic dispute over the Western air war.

France confirmed on Wednesday that it had air-dropped arms to rebels in Libya’s Western Mountains, becoming the first NATO country to acknowledge openly arming the insurgency against Gaddafi’s 41-year rule.

France, Britain and the United States are leading a three-month-old air campaign which they say they will not end until Gaddafi falls. The war has become the bloodiest of the “Arab Spring” uprisings sweeping North Africa and the Middle East.

Rebels acknowledged French support, saying it had helped sustain them in the region.

“There should be no doubt that Libyans in the Nafusa Mountain (Western Mountains) area are alive and safe today thanks to a combination of heroic Libyan bravery and French wisdom and support,” Vice Chairman Abdul Hafeedh Ghoga of the Transitional National Council said in a statement of thanks to French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Though rebel advances have been slow, the insurgents scored a success in the region on Sunday in pushing to the outskirts of Bir al-Ghanam, within 80 km (50 miles) of Tripoli.

On Thursday the rebels surveyed the strategic town from a ridge overlooking the desert plateau that leads to the capital, in preparation for a possible attack. A Reuters journalist with them said they were waiting for NATO airstrikes to help them.

Libyan television broadcast a statement from tribal leaders condemning Sarkozy over the arms, calling the rebels in the Berber area “a product of France.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow “asked our French colleagues today whether reports that weapons from France were delivered to Libyan rebels correspond with reality.”

“If this is confirmed, it is a very crude violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1970,” he said. That resolution, adopted in February, imposed a comprehensive arms embargo.

Paris said on Wednesday it believed it had not violated the U.N. embargo because the weapons it gave the rebels were needed to protect civilians from an imminent attack, which it says is allowed under a later Security Council resolution.

Washington agreed. “We believe that U.N. Security Council resolutions 1970 and 1973, read together, neither specified nor precluded providing defense materiel to the Libyan opposition,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.

“We would respectfully disagree with the Russian assessment,” he added. Nevertheless, although legal, arming the rebels was “not an option that we have acted on,” he said.
Although Russia is not involved in the bombing campaign, its stance could add to reservations among some NATO countries wary over an air war that has lasted longer and cost more than expected. Moscow could also challenge Paris at the U.N. Security Council, where both are veto-wielding permanent members.

U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq said it was up to the Security Council to determine what is permitted by its resolutions.

France’s weapons airlift, while possibly increasing the insurgent threat to Gaddafi, highlights a dilemma for NATO.

More than 90 days into its bombing campaign, Gaddafi is still in power and no breakthrough is in sight, making some NATO members feel they should help the rebels more actively, something the poorly-armed insurgents have encouraged.

But if they do that, they risk fracturing the international coalition over how far to go.

The World Bank’s Libya representative said on Thursday Islamist militants could gain ground if the conflict wears on.

“If this civil war goes on, it would be a new Somalia, which I don’t say lightly,” said Marouane Abassi, World Bank country manager for Libya who has been in Tunisia since February.

“In three months we could be dealing with extremists. That’s why time is very important in this conflict, before we face problems in managing it.”

Even before news of the French arms supply emerged, fissures were emerging in the coalition with some members voicing frustration about the high cost, civilian casualties, and the elusiveness of a military victory.

Gaddafi says the NATO campaign is an act of colonial aggression aimed at stealing the North African state’s oil. He says NATO’s U.N.-mandated justification for its campaign — to protect Libyan civilians from attack — is spurious.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen made clear on Thursday the weapons airlift was a unilateral French initiative. Asked by reporters on a visit to Vienna if NATO had been involved, he answered: “No.”

“As regards compliance with the U.N. Security Council resolution, it is for the U.N. sanctions committee to determine that,” Rasmussen said.

The rebel advance toward Tripoli’s southwest outskirts from the Western Mountains has not been matched by progress toward the capital from the east, where they hold Misrata on the coast about 200 km (130 miles) from the capital.

The city has been bombarded for months by Gaddafi’s forces. Six rockets landed early on Thursday near the oil refinery and port. A Reuters journalist there reported no casualties.

Britain’s military said its Apache helicopters had attacked a government checkpoint and two military vehicles near Khoms, on the Mediterranean coast between Misrata and Tripoli.

Insurgents say Gaddafi’s forces are massing and bringing weapons to quell an uprising in Zlitan, the next big town along the road from Misrata to the capital. Rebels inside Zlitan said they mounted a raid on pro-Gaddafi positions on Wednesday night.

“(We) carried out a violent attack last night on checkpoints … and exchanged gunfire, killing a number of soldiers,” a rebel spokesman, who identified himself as Mabrouk, told Reuters from the town.
Le Figaro newspaper said France had parachuted rocket launchers, assault rifles and anti-tank missiles into the Western Mountains in early June.

A French military spokesman later confirmed arms had been delivered, although he said anti-tank missiles were not among them. Despite the diplomatic storm, the rebels encouraged more arms deliveries.

“Giving (us) weapons we will be able to decide the battle more quickly, so that we can shed as little blood as possible,” senior rebel figure Mahmoud Jibril said in Vienna.

The conflict has halted oil exports from Libya, helping push up world oil prices. Jibril said it may take years for oil exports to fully resume: “No, no oil is being sold. A lot of the oil well system was destroyed, especially in the east.”

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Banning the Burqa

March 4, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Reuven Firestone

While on sabbatical as a family in Egypt a couple of years ago, we quickly became accustomed to seeing women wearing head coverings on the street. Nearly every single Muslim woman over the age of 12 wore one. The general word for these is hijab, which is a quranic term meaning “barrier” or “screen.” In a famous verse (33:53) it refers to a partition in the home of the prophet Muhammad to separate the women of his family from the eyes of the many people who would come to Muhammad’s home seeking an audience with him. Its meaning is basically the same as the Hebrew word mechitzah, the barrier that separates the women’s section from the men’s section in traditional synagogues.

The intent of the Quranic verse was to protect the women of Muhammad’s family from the intrusion of strangers and the possible embarrassment that could result. Because of the egalitarian nature of Arabian society in general, religious interpreters applied the notion not only to the family of the prophet, but to all Muslim families, and soon the term was applied to a common form of modesty practiced also among Christian and Jewish and Zoroastrian women at the time — covering the hair. The purpose was to encourage modest dress and protect women from the prying eyes of men.

We found the issue of modest dress curious in Egypt. Modesty in Cairo today means covering every inch of skin aside from the face, hands and feet, and that includes covering the hair. But at the same time, teenage girls and young women often wear tight tops and jeans that reveal every bump and wrinkle of their bodies. It is rare to see a niqab in Egypt, the full-face covering or veil.

Burqa is an Arabic term that refers to any face covering with eye openings. It is common today to use burqa to refer to the Afghan garment that envelops a woman’s entire face and body except for a small square area around the eyes that is covered by a concealing net or grille. The more accurate term for that is actually chadri.

In any case, niqab or burqa refers to a piece of clothing that covers the entire face, or all the face except the eyes. The issue of covering has been a point of contention for Muslim religious scholars for many centuries. While all consider modest dress required, some scholars also consider covering the face obligatory. Others consider it highly recommended but not required. Still others actually consider it forbidden, and the issue continues to arouse debate in the Muslim world.

Surprising as it may seem, France has decided to weigh in on the issue and has begun the process to issue its own version of a fatwa on the matter. Already in 2004, Parliament passed a law banning the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in French government-operated schools. This outlawed not only the Muslim headscarf, but also kippot and outward wearing of the crucifix.

Last July, President Nicolas Sarkozy targeted the burqa as an affront to human and civil rights. “The burqa is not a religious problem,” he told the French Parliament. “It’s a problem of freedom and the dignity of women.” Later that same day, while visiting Muslim graves at a WWI cemetery, he said, “Islam is today the religion of many French people…. France can’t allow French Muslims to be stigmatized.”

Those are astonishing words. I don’t understand how banning religious expression is not a religious problem, and I cannot for the life of me understand how banning a garment indicative of Muslim modesty is not an act of stigmatization.

I do understand, however, why people might consider banning the burqa to be supportive of Muslim women’s dignity. We naturally want to help people who we imagine are being persecuted. But condemning the burqa is imposing one set of culturally and religiously defined values or an aesthetic standard onto people who may not agree. How do we know that wearing a burqa is a humiliation? How is it shameful? How do you or I know how a woman wearing a full-face veil feels about it? Personally, I find many outfits that are worn in Beverly Hills among a variety of men and women to be humiliating. Why not pass a law banning the wearing of miniskirts and low-cut tops among sagging, aging women? Or black toupees on graying old men?

Here’s an example closer to home. I personally find the practice of shaving a beautiful young woman’s head, even if intended for modesty, to be an act of chillul haShem. We were created in God’s image. We desecrate God’s image whenever we purposefully disfigure our bodies. And halachah does not require shaving married Jewish women’s heads. It is only custom, and only within some communities, yet it would be a terrible and unethical act of interference on the religious and cultural rights of Jews for any government to ban the practice.

Two weeks ago, a government commission in France recommended banning the burqa in public buildings such as schools and hospitals, but not on the streets. Jean-Francois Copé, leader of Sarkozy’s majority party in Parliament (the UMP) explained, “The two reasons why we have to implement legislation is to respect the rights of women and, second, it’s a question of security. Who can imagine that in a country like ours, people can walk everywhere in the country and also in our cities with a burqa, without the possibility to recognize their face?”

Banning someone from wearing a veil is not respecting a woman’s rights. It is exactly the opposite: It is a blatant act of disrespecting her right to choose what to wear. Security may be another matter, but if wearing a full-body burqa is forbidden in public buildings but allowed in the streets, how is that increasing security when a terrorist could walk anywhere on the streets of Paris wearing a burqa packed with explosives? I admit that I would make a terrible suicide bomber, but it seems to me that if I wanted to smuggle body explosives into a public place, I would wear a trench coat rather than traditional Islamic or Arab dress. Why invite scrutiny in the current climate?

These new developments in France remind me of a similar move almost exactly two centuries ago when Napoleon called a Grand Sanhedrin in 1807. That was when an assemblage of Jewish notables was put under intense government pressure to change thousands of years of Jewish tradition in order to conform to French sensibilities. The Jewish leaders were asked 12 questions that were intended to determine whether Jews were worthy of French citizenship. They included such questions as whether it was acceptable in Jewish law for Jews to marry Christians or whether Jews were allowed to be usurious toward non-Jews. The Jewish leaders fudged their answers, wrote in vague language and were not entirely forthcoming (to say the least). Their answers nevertheless passed muster, but “passing” required, among other stipulations, that the Jewish leaders condemn all “false interpretations of their religious laws.” How would that be determined? Who would rule on the so-called “false interpretations?” The trade-off for citizenship was the denial of the unique value of our religious culture and the vibrant nature of Jewish religious discourse. The result was, among other things, a huge wave of assimilation and loss of Jewish identity.

No, banning the burqa is not an attempt to protect the dignity of women or to increase security. It is an attempt to make “ethnics” conform to a flat and unimaginative sense of what it means to be French. It is legal enforcement of an outdated and oppressive ideology that does not respect the fundamental freedom to express one’s religious identity in public.

Reuven Firestone is a professor of Medieval Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.

12-10

French Fast Food Chain Quick Sparks Halal Burger Appeal

February 28, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Quick-france A French council has lodged a complaint against a fast food chain that serves only meat that conforms with Islamic dietary laws at a local branch.

The mayor of Roubaix, in northern France, said the halal menu constituted “discrimination” against non-Muslims.

The Roubaix branch is one of several restaurants at which the chain, Quick, took non-halal products and pork off the menu in November.

The move has triggered the latest row over France’s Muslim minority.

Several deputies from French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservative UMP party have condemned the move, while Marine Le Pen, a vice-president of the far-right National Front, warned of “Islamisation”.

Their comments came ahead of regional elections in France next month, and against the backdrop of a debate over French national identity launched by Mr Sarkozy’s government.

‘Going too far’

In Roubaix, Mayor Rene Vandierendonck, a socialist, called for a boycott of the Quick branch, and the town council has filed a complaint for discrimination with a regional court in Lille.

“I’m not bothered by the fact that there is a halal menu,” Mr Vandierendonck said.

“But this is going too far because it is the only menu on offer and it has become discrimination.”

Quick decided to take a bacon hamburger off the menu at eight of its 350 branches, replacing it with a halal version that comes with smoked turkey.

It said the move was designed to test the “commercial interest and technical feasibility” of introducing halal menus.

The Quick manager responsible for the Roubaix branch said there had been a slight increase in business after the introduction of halal menus and that he had not received complaints from customers, AFP news agency reported.

France is home to Europe’s biggest Muslim minority, estimated at more than five million people.

Debate has recently focused on the Islamic veil, with a French parliamentary committee recommending a partial ban on women wearing Islamic face veils last month.

12-9

France May Ban Niqab

January 18, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

niqab2 PARIS (AP) — A top lawmaker from President Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservative party filed legislation on Tuesday to bar Muslim women in France from appearing in public wearing veils that hide their faces.

The bill by lawmaker Jean-Francois Cope, who heads the UMP party in the National Assembly, or lower house, has sparked criticism from some of his political allies. The speaker of the lower house, Bernard Accoyer, called Cope’s move “premature.”

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A panel of lawmakers has held hearings for six months on the all-encompassing veils that cover all but a woman’s eyes. It is to advise parliament by month’s end whether it believes a law banning such garments is needed.

In further criticism from within Cope’s own party, Labor Minister Laurent Wauquiez accused the lawmaker of using the debate over veils for self-promotion because he failed to await the conclusions of the parliamentary mission.

Sarkozy opened the debate on such veils in June, saying they aren’t welcome in France — but without specifying whether he wants a law against them.

A 2004 law bans Muslim headscarves and other “ostentatious” religious symbols from classrooms. Only a tiny minority of Muslim women in France wear the more extreme covering — which is not required by Islam. However, Islam is the No. 2 religion in France after Roman Catholicism, and authorities worry that such dress may be a gateway to extremism. They also say it amounts to an insult to women and to France’s secular foundations.

There has been concern over how any law banning the full veil could be presented without infringing on constitutional rights.

Cope’s approach is based on public order and safety. Article 1 of his proposal stipulates that “no one, in places open to the public or on streets, may wear an outfit or an accessory whose effect is to hide the face” except those with legitimate motives formally recognized. This was an apparent reference to certain cultural events and carnivals such as Mardi Gras, which Cope said last week would be exempt from his legislation.

Women failing to abide by the law, were it passed, would be subject to fines that could reach euro750 ($1,070), according to a summary by Cope last week.

He also introduced on Tuesday a parallel resolution — which does not carry the weight of law — stressing the importance of respecting the nation’s values “in the face of the development of radical practices which harm them.” The resolution states that all-enveloping veils harm “dignity and equality between men and women” and are contrary to French values.

12-3

Swiss Politician Apologizes For Calling For Ban On Muslim And Jewish Cemeteries

December 10, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Rachel Slajda

A Swiss politician has apologized today for calling for a ban on Jewish and Muslim cemeteries two days after the country voted to outlaw minarets on mosques.

“I am sorry. I didn’t mean it like that,” said Christopher Darbellay, president of the Christian Democratic People’s Party of Switzerland, a centrist party and the smallest member of the government coalition.

“It was about the principle that we all belong to the same Swiss society,” he added.

In his call for the ban, Darbellay said, “I don’t imagine that in this country, every religion or sect can have a separate cemetery in every town. It wouldn’t be manageable to make these exceptions. … Principle requires that one does not distinguish on the basis of origin or religion.”

Darbellay has also called for a ban on burkas or veils worn by some Muslim women.

Switzerland made international headlines Sunday when residents voted to add a line to their constitution banning the construction of minarets, or prayer towers, on mosques. The initiative, backed by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party, passed by more than 57 percent of voters.

“The minute you have minarets in Europe it means Islam will have taken over,” said one SPP politician.

The Swiss have a long history of trying to keep their culture free from the influence of both Muslim and Jewish immigrants.

In 1893, Switzerland banned the practice of shechitah, the kosher way of slaughtering animals, citing cruelty because the animals are not stunned first. Although the government opposed the measure, a group called the Anti-Semite Committee gathered more than 83,000 signatures to bring it to a referendum.

Even now, Jews and Muslims must import their kosher and halal meat from neighboring countries. In recent years, some groups have gone farther, trying to ban even its import. In 2003, for example, the Swiss Animal Protection group began a campaign to ban its import, but failed.

Six other European countries join Switzerland in banning the practice: Sweden, Norway, Finland, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. The European Union recognized such slaughter earlier this year and declared kosher and halal meat can be sold in every country, but did not go so far as to legalize the slaughtering practice throughout the EU.

Much of the xenophobia in Switzerland seems rooted in the belief that immigrants will not assimilliate into Swiss culture. In 2006, the citizenship application of a Turkish woman and religious teacher was rejected because she didn’t want to integrate into society.

Muslims are one of the fastest-growing groups in Europe, sparking culture clashes throughout the continent. In France, for example, President Nicolas Sarkozy wants to ban the burka on the grounds that such veils oppress women.

11-51

Canada Drops Plans to Ban Veiled Voting

August 6, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

CBC News

Canada_flag The federal government has no plans to move forward with proposed legislation to force veiled women to show their faces when voting, the minister of state for democratic reform said Thursday.

“We have other priorities as far as increasing voter participation and with the expanded voting opportunities legislation,” Steven Fletcher said in an interview.
“And that is our focus. That obviously will affect a lot more people.”

Dmitri Soudas, a spokesperson for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, confirmed the government still supports the idea of forcing voters to reveal their faces, but said the bill doesn’t have opposition support.

“The bottom line is even if we were to proceed with legislation, it would be voted down immediately,” Soudas said.

The government introduced the bill in October 2007, a month after an Elections Canada ruling allowed Muslim women to vote with their faces covered by burkas or niqabs during three Quebec by elections.

That decision infuriated the government, and Harper accused Elections Canada of subverting the will of Parliament, which several months earlier had unanimously adopted legislation beefing up voter identification requirements.

“I profoundly disagree with the decision,” Harper said at the time. “The role of Elections Canada is not to make its own laws, it’s to put into place the laws that Parliament has passed.”

The government’s proposed amendment to the Canada Elections Act would have made a limited exception for any voter whose face is swathed in bandages due to surgery or some other medical reason. It also would have given some flexibility to Elections Canada officials to administer the law in a manner respectful of religious beliefs.

Opposition parties initially supported the proposed legislation, but later backed off when the issue was more closely examined.

Chief electoral officer Marc Mayrand noted that the beefed-up ID requirements passed by Parliament in 2007 did not, in fact, authorize the agency to compel visual identification of voters.

Moreover, it was pointed out that thousands of Canadians have no photo ID. Requiring them to show their faces would be meaningless without photo identification against which to verify their identities.

The Elections Act gives voters three ways to prove their identification in order to cast a ballot: provide a government photo ID; provide two pieces of approved ID, at least one of which must state their address (but neither of which must contain a photo); or have another voter registered in the same district vouch for them.

The federal government’s decision comes days after French President Nicolas Sarkozy said full-body gowns that are worn by the most conservative Muslim women have no place in France.

Sarkozy said wearing the burka or the niqab isn’t about religion, but the subjugation of women.

“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 in a speech Monday.

With files from The Canadian Press, The Associated Press

11-33

A Muslim’s Murder: Double Standards, Crude Generalizations

July 16, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Why we must work harder to bridge the gulf between the culture of fear and the culture of humiliation

By Sheema Khan

The stabbing death of Marwa al-Sherbini in a German courtroom will have ramifications in the months to come. Already, there is palpable anger in Egypt, where she was buried this week. That anger will most likely spread to other parts of the Middle East and South Asia and amongst Europe’s Muslim minorities.

The Egyptian blogosphere is filled with outrage – outrage at the vicious murder of a pregnant woman in a court of law and, most notably, at the lack of attention given to this hate crime by political institutions and European media. Many note the double standard: The ghastly murder of Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam in 2004 was used as a pretext to cast suspicion on Dutch Muslims, whereas Marwa’s murder in Dresden last week is the work of a “lone wolf,” an immigrant from Russia (and thus not “really” German).

The muted reaction to the killing of a woman, in the heart of Europe, for wearing her hijab, also galls. No need to imagine the outrage if a woman is killed for not wearing a hijab – just look to the visceral reaction at the killing of Mississauga teenager Aqsa Parvez in 2007.

And while German authorities investigate whether Marwa’s murder was a hate crime, they might also want to focus on the reaction of court security. As Marwa was being stabbed, her husband tried to intervene. A court officer, apparently assuming the man with the Middle Eastern features to be the attacker, shot Marwa’s husband. He is now in critical condition.

Many do not see Marwa’s fate in isolation. The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, in its 2004 annual report, said “Islamophobia continues to manifest itself in different guises. Muslim communities are the target of negative attitudes, and sometimes, violence and harassment. They suffer multiple forms of discrimination, including sometimes from certain public institutions.” The London-based Runnymede Charity, in its 2004 report Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All, found that Muslims were seen by Europeans as the “other” and as lacking in values held by Western cultures, that Islam was violent, aggressive and terroristic, and that anti-Muslim hostility was natural or normal.

So, no surprise that European Muslims are increasingly seen as “outsiders,” with a monolithic, rigid culture that’s antithetical to that of Europe. Amidst sagging popularity and a recession, French President Nicolas Sarkozy redirected attention to the burka, saying it’s not welcome in his country. Even Muslims who don’t support the burka felt uncomfortable with Mr. Sarkozy’s spotlight on their community.

And so the double standards abound. As do the crude generalizations. When the perpetrator happens to be a Muslim, reports are sensationalistic, and Muslims, along with their faith, are cast in a negative light. In the Dresden case, the mirror reaction is happening in Egypt: All Germans are somehow complicit in Marwa’s fate. In the wake of horrific violence, the primal instinct is to blame all, to cast suspicion on those we don’t know.

Yet, in the wake of such episodes, we must work even harder to bridge the gulf between what Dominique Moisi calls the culture of fear and the culture of humiliation. Otherwise, the perpetrators of hate will achieve their goal of driving people apart. As Mariane Pearl, the widow of Daniel Pearl, wrote: “They try to kill everything in you – initiative, hope, confidence, dialogue. The only way to oppose them is by demonstrating the strength they think they have taken from you. That strength is to keep on living, to keep on valuing life.”

Let’s remember that the enemy is xenophobia, which can metastasize like cancer unless society is on guard against the pernicious tendency to view others as less human. We have seen the ugly spectre of racism at Keswick High School and in Courtenay, B.C. We have our own painful history of wrongs committed against ethnic groups and indigenous communities. Yet, the better part of the human spirit tries to overcome these dark episodes with the light of justice and restitution.

Marwa’s murder cannot be in vain. She took on her perpetrator in a court of law after he called her a terrorist. Some would say she lost. It is up to us to carry on the larger quest of fighting racism and building bridges, so her son – and all children – can grow up without fear and prejudice.

sheema.khan@globeandmail.com

11-30

Sarkozy Says Burqas Are Unwelcome in France

June 27, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Susanna Ferreira and David Gauthier-Villars in Paris

President Nicolas Sarkozy took sides in a growing debate on the burqa, a head-to-toe garment that is worn by some Muslim women and that conceals their faces, saying it isn’t a religious symbol but “a sign of enslavement and debasement” of women.

“The burqa is not welcome on French territory,” Mr. Sarkozy said. “In our country, we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity.”

Mr. Sarkozy, who was addressing a joint session of the French Parliament at Versailles — the first French president to address the legislature in more than a century — also pledged further government investment to help the country out of its recession.

Almost halfway through his five-year term, Mr. Sarkozy is struggling to deliver on his electoral pledge to downsize the French state. Instead, his government is spending to try to boost the economy, which is expected to shrink 3% this year.

He told lawmakers he would sharply reduce the state’s “bad budget deficit,” but he also unveiled a government bond issue to finance industrial, education and cultural projects.

Mr. Sarkozy’s speech, delivered at the château of Versailles, signaled his growing domination of French government. He used a change he introduced last year in France’s constitution that allows the president to address lawmakers directly.

Opposition lawmakers called the address a “narcissistic exercise” and said it only served Mr. Sarkozy’s taste for pomp. They said the speech highlighted how Mr. Sarkozy has relegated Prime Minister François Fillon to a subordinate role.

Mr. Sarkozy said he endorsed holding a parliamentary inquiry to study the small, but apparently growing, phenomenon of women wearing the burqa on French streets. The move could be the first step toward an outright ban on the coverings.

This month, a group of 76 lawmakers called for France to ban the garment, which is often associated with the Salafi strain of Islam and is worn by only a small percentage of Muslim women. The lawmakers appealed for a parliamentary commission to study the issue.

Some Muslim lobby groups, however, have urged the French government to refrain from holding a public debate on the issue, saying it would stigmatize France’s Muslim community, Europe’s largest.

France has strict rules separating state and religion, including a 2004 law banning veils, crosses, and other religious symbols and dress from public schools and government buildings.

The French debate was spearheaded by André Gerin, a French lawmaker and mayor of Vénissieux, near Lyon. The veils are “a test for our civilization,” Mr. Gerin said in a telephone interview, adding that his goal is to “liberate these women.”

Mr. Sarkozy said that he won’t raise taxes and that it is time to make spending cuts. He proposed slashing the number of local-government representatives, and said he will decide by mid-2010 whether to raise the minimum retirement age, which stands at 60 years for most workers.

So far, Mr. Sarkozy has maintained his popularity despite the economic slump. Still, he has been forced to shelve some of his plans to slim down France’s state in order to promote a livelier, more prosperous economy.

The budget deficit is likely to shoot up to €140 billion ($194 billion) this year — 7.5% of gross domestic product compared with 3.4% in 2008. Tax revenues are falling because of the recession, and Mr. Sarkozy has spent public funds to prop up banks and struggling auto companies.

11-27