STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
We have an update this morning on what's called the burqa debate in France. The question is whether the full head and body covering worn by many Muslim women should be banned. Today, a French commission recommended that it be outlawed in public buildings, like schools and hospitals. The country's been having this discussion for more than six months, and as Eleanor Beardsley reports, it's not over yet.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: The burqa debate erupted last summer when President Nicolas Sarkozy, out of the blue, declared the all-encompassing face covering veil unwelcome in France.
NICOLAS SARKOZY: (French spoken)
BEARDSLEY: The burqa is not a religious problem, he told the French parliament in his state-of-the-union-style address. It's a problem of freedom and the dignity of women.
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BEARDSLEY: Jean-Francois Cope, leader of Sarkozy's majority party in parliament, believes France needs a solid law against the burqa.
JEAN: The two reasons why we have to implement this legislation is to respect the rights of women, and second is the question of security. Who can imagine that people can just walk everywhere in the country with a burqa without the possibility for us to recognize their face?
BEARDSLEY: France is home to Europe's largest Muslim minority, but the sight of fully veiled women is not an everyday occurrence in most parts of the country. While the shoppers and vendors at a street market in the north of Paris are mostly immigrants from Africa and the Maghreb, no one's dressed in a burqa or niqab today. Like many, 22-year-old Selema Zabag(ph) is wearing a head scarf, or hijab.
SELEMA ZABAG: (French spoken)
BEARDSLEY: I think it's inadmissible in a country of so-called liberty to forbid people to wear what they want, says Zabag.
COPE: It's not a question of tolerance. We are very tolerant. Everybody can have his own religion. No problem with that. But it has to be subordinated to the law of the republic. And the law say you have to show your face.
BEARDSLEY: Jean-Francois Cope has been pounding home that message. Recently, in a popular late-night talk show watched by millions of French people, Cope faced off with a woman wearing a niqab who went by the name of Delilah.
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COPE: (Foreign language spoken)
DELILAH: (Foreign language spoken)
BEARDSLEY: Mohammed al-Madani(ph), who describes himself as a law-abiding, voting French citizen, says banning burqas, like banning minarets in Switzerland, is a blow to Muslims and a political ploy.
MOHAMMED AL: For us Muslims, it's very simple, in fact. The party of the president is trying to make the people of the extreme right, to make them vote for the UMP, for the president's party.
BEARDSLEY: For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.
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